Ameenah Habib in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Photography by Noah Willman; Hair and Makeup by Connie Tsang

Islam in America

Despite becoming part of the fabric of American life, Muslims face increasing hostility and attacks on their faith

In many ways, 19-year-old Ameenah Habib is a typical American teen. She often spends Friday nights hanging out at Chick-fil-A with her friends or going to the mall or the movies. 

But as an observant Muslim, she also prays five times a day, as Islam requires. She wears a head scarf to cover her hair in public and struggles to find modest clothes at the mall. Habib, who graduated last June from Briar Woods High School in Ashburn, Virginia, doesn’t go to parties where she suspects there might be drinking or smoking because Islam forbids those things. And she doesn’t date.

In many ways, 19-year-old Ameenah Habib is a typical American teen. She often spends Friday nights hanging out at Chick-fil-A with her friends or going to the mall or the movies.

But as an observant Muslim, she also prays five times a day, as Islam requires. She wears a head scarf to cover her hair in public and struggles to find modest clothes at the mall. Habib graduated last June from Briar Woods High School in Ashburn, Virginia. She doesn’t go to parties where she thinks there might be drinking or smoking because Islam forbids those things. And she doesn’t date.

Debbie Malyn 2017 Courtesy Edsel Ford High School

The 2017 graduation at Edsel Ford High School, Dearborn, Michigan

Islam, she says, affects every aspect of her life. “I like to think of Islam as a lifestyle; it gives my life purpose,” says Habib, who was born in the U.S. to Bangladeshi immigrants.

Largely because of immigrant families like Habib’s, Islam is one of the fastest- growing religions in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, there are about 3.5 million Muslims in America—up from about 2.5 million 10 years ago.

Islam, she says, affects every aspect of her life. “I like to think of Islam as a lifestyle; it gives my life purpose,” says Habib, who was born in the U.S. to Bangladeshi immigrants.

Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States. Immigrant families like Habib’s are driving this rapid growth. According to the Pew Research Center, there are about 3.5 million Muslims in America. The population has increased from about 2.5 million 10 years ago.

‘I like to think of Islam as a lifestyle; it gives my life purpose.’ —Ameenah Habib

While Muslims are becoming more a part of the fabric of the U.S. in many places, a substantial percentage of Americans still view them with suspicion. And many Muslims in the U.S. feel under attack in the current political climate.  

“The Muslim community is thriving in many ways,” says Farid Senzai, an expert on American Muslims at the Center for Global Policy in Washington, D.C. “But we also see this intensifying animosity toward Muslims.”

That’s true in the U.S. and abroad. Last month, a gunman attacked worshippers at two mosques in New Zealand, killing at least 50 people. American Muslim leaders say they see those attacks as part of a rising tide of intolerance toward Muslims.

Muslims are becoming more a part of the fabric of the U.S. in many places. But a significant percentage of Americans still view them with suspicion. And many Muslims in the U.S. feel under attack in the current political climate.

“The Muslim community is thriving in many ways,” says Farid Senzai, an expert on American Muslims at the Center for Global Policy in Washington, D.C. “But we also see this intensifying animosity toward Muslims.” 

That’s true in the U.S. and abroad. Last month, a gunman attacked worshippers at two mosques in New Zealand. He killed at least 50 people. American Muslim leaders say they see those attacks as part of a rising tide of intolerance toward Muslims.

70 Different Countries

In the U.S., the Muslim community is incredibly diverse. According to a 2017 Pew survey, immigrants from South Asia (including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) are the largest group of Muslims in the U.S., followed by Arabs and African-Americans. (In the 1960s, a significant number of blacks in the U.S. converted to Islam.) Forty-two percent of American Muslims were born in the U.S., and 58 percent come from more than 70 different countries (see charts below).

There are significant populations of Muslims in urban areas such as New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Detroit, but there are also parts of the country where so few Muslims live that many residents have never met one.

As a group, U.S. Muslims are more educated than Americans as a whole and they tend to vote in higher numbers. More than 80 percent of Muslims in America are U.S. citizens—about half of those were born in the U.S. and half have become citizens after immigrating. In addition, they’re increasingly contributing to American culture, forming, for example, Muslim Scout troops, comedy groups, and publications.

In the U.S., the Muslim community is very diverse. According to a 2017 Pew survey, the largest group of Muslims in the U.S. are immigrants from South Asia. They come from various countries in the region, including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The next two largest groups of U.S. Muslims are Arabs and African-Americans. (In the 1960s, a significant number of blacks in the U.S. converted to Islam.) Forty-two percent of American Muslims were born in the U.S. The other 58 percent come from more than 70 different countries (see charts, below).

There are large populations of Muslims in urban areas such as New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Detroit. But there are also parts of the country where so few Muslims live that many residents have never met one.

As a group, U.S. Muslims are more educated than Americans as a whole, and they tend to vote in higher numbers. More than 80 percent of Muslims in America are U.S. citizens. About half of those were born in the U.S. and half have become citizens after immigrating. They’re also increasingly contributing to American culture. For example, they’ve formed Muslim Scout troops, comedy groups, and publications.

Mark Peterson/Redux

A protester in Texas in 2015

Not Fully Accepted

The recent Pew survey found that more than 90 percent of U.S. Muslims say they’re proud to be American. But that study also identified an important contradiction.

“On the one hand, we see Muslims are broadly well integrated and committed to the American ideals of working hard and succeeding,” says Besheer Mohamed, a researcher at Pew. “On the other hand, they feel they’re not fully accepted by American society.”

The numbers bear that out, and it highlights some of the particular challenges that Muslims face in the U.S.: Fewer Americans—just 48 percent—have positive feelings about Muslims than about any other religious group, including atheists, a recent Pew study found. And 50 percent of Americans believe that Islam isn’t part of mainstream American society.

The recent Pew survey found that more than 90 percent of U.S. Muslims say they’re proud to be American. But that study also identified an important contradiction.

“On the one hand, we see Muslims are broadly well integrated and committed to the American ideals of working hard and succeeding,” says Besheer Mohamed, a researcher at Pew. “On the other hand, they feel they’re not fully accepted by American society.”

The numbers bear that out. Only 48 percent of Americans have positive feelings about Muslims, a recent Pew study found. Every other religious group got higher ratings, including atheists. The study also found that 50 percent of Americans believe that Islam is not part of mainstream American society. These statistics highlight some of the particular challenges that Muslims face in the U.S. 

Islam is becoming more and more Americanized.

Those tensions can be traced back to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Carried out by Al Qaeda, a radical Islamist group, those attacks killed almost 3,000 people in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania; prompted the war in Afghanistan that continues to this day; and left a deep wound on the American psyche. More recently, a series of smaller attacks in the U.S. by individuals who say they were inspired by the Islamist terrorist group ISIS have made more people fearful of Muslims.  

These feelings have been intensified by the political environment in the U.S.
President Trump promised as a candidate to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., and his administration has implemented a controversial ban on travelers from six majority-Muslim countries. The president and his supporters say the restrictions are necessary to protect the country from terrorism.

“We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas,” Trump said when he signed the executive order.

Amaney Jamal, a professor at Princeton University in New Jersey, says all this adds up to a “much more hostile, Islamophobic environment. Most Muslims will say it’s worse today than in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.”

In fact, 2016 saw a huge spike in the number of anti-Muslim assaults—even more than after the 9/11 attacks, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of F.B.I. crime data.  

And many Americans either don’t know much about Islam or have incorrect information. Many young Muslims spend a lot of time correcting common misperceptions about Islam: that it condones terrorism (it doesn’t) and that it denies women equal rights (it doesn’t, though many majority-Muslim cultures and countries do).

Those tensions can be traced back to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Al Qaeda, a radical Islamist group, staged the attacks. Almost 3,000 people in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania were killed. The attacks triggered the war in Afghanistan that continues to this day. They also left a deep wound on the American psyche. More recently, a series of smaller attacks in the U.S. have occurred. They’ve been carried out by individuals who say they were inspired by the Islamist terrorist group ISIS. These attacks have made more people fearful of Muslims.

These feelings have been intensified by the political environment in the U.S.

President Trump promised as a candidate to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. His administration has implemented a controversial ban on travelers from six majority-Muslim countries. The president and his supporters say the restrictions are necessary to protect the country from terrorism.

“We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas,” Trump said when he signed the executive order.

Amaney Jamal, a professor at Princeton University in New Jersey, says all this adds up to a “much more hostile, Islamophobic environment. Most Muslims will say it’s worse today than in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.”

In fact, 2016 saw a huge spike in the number of anti-Muslim assaults. Even more occurred that year than after the 9/11 attacks, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of F.B.I. crime data. 

And many Americans either don’t know much about Islam or have incorrect information. Many young Muslims spend a lot of time correcting common misperceptions about Islam. One of the inaccurate perceptions is that the religion condones terrorism (it doesn’t). Another is that it denies women equal rights (it doesn’t, though many majority-Muslim cultures and countries do).

Bryan Mitchell/Scholastic/AP Images

Shahab Abdullah

Fasting and Football

For Shahab Abdullah, an 18-year-old Muslim from Dearborn, Michigan, his religion is completely compatible with American values. To him, Islam’s emphasis on generosity to others and service to one’s community feels pretty similar to the kinds of community service projects he and his classmates at Edsel Ford High School take on.

“I’m really proud of my religion and all that it’s taught me,” Abdullah says.

Islam is a big part of his life. He tries to pray five times a day, and he observes Ramadan, the monthlong holiday during which Muslims are expected to fast from dawn to dusk. In 2017, Ramadan fell in late May during final exams. His freshman year, it coincided with football practice.

“That can be challenging if you’re not eating,” Abdullah says. “Running laps on an empty stomach was hard!”

For Shahab Abdullah, an 18-year-old Muslim from Dearborn, Michigan, his religion completely matches American values. For example, Islam emphasizes generosity to others and service to one’s community. To Abdullah, that feels pretty similar to the kinds of community service projects he and his classmates at Edsel Ford High School take on.

“I’m really proud of my religion and all that it’s taught me,” Abdullah says.

Islam is a big part of his life. He tries to pray five times a day. He also observes Ramadan, the monthlong holiday during which Muslims are expected to fast from dawn to dusk. In 2017, Ramadan fell in late May during final exams. His freshman year, it overlapped with football practice. 

“That can be challenging if you’re not eating,” Abdullah says. “Running laps on an empty stomach was hard!”

‘I’m really proud of my religion and all that it’s taught me.’ —Shahab Abdullah

Living in Dearborn, which is about one-third Muslim, has shielded Abdullah to some extent from the discrimination that many American Muslims sense from the broader community. The city just outside of Detroit is home to the largest mosque in the nation and many smaller ones. It’s common to see women wearing head scarves on the streets. Dearborn’s public schools and its McDonald’s offer food that complies with Islamic dietary laws.  

But Abdullah still feels the hostility against Muslims that’s become an increasing part of life in the U.S. in recent years. Every time he hears about some kind of terrorist incident—in the U.S. or abroad—he braces for the flood of nasty comments he knows he’ll encounter online.

“It feels like them judging our entire religion by the actions of one person,” Abdullah says. “That really stings.”

Ameenah Habib, the 19-year-old from Virginia, has also experienced an increase in anti-Muslim feeling in the past few years. She was walking home from school not long ago when someone in a passing car yelled “rag head” at her, apparently alluding to her head scarf. She tries to shrug off insults like this. “You just have to have a thick skin,” she says.

But that’s not always easy.

“I’ve always considered myself an American, but during the election, I didn’t feel like this was home,” Habib says, noting the hostile rhetoric toward Muslims that the 2016 presidential campaign prompted. “And that was hard for me. It was kind of an identity crisis.”

Dearborn is about one-third Muslim. Living there has shielded Abdullah to some extent from the discrimination that many American Muslims sense from the broader community. The city just outside of Detroit is home to the largest mosque in the nation and many smaller ones. It’s common to see women wearing head scarves on the streets. Dearborn’s public schools and its McDonald’s offer food that complies with Islamic dietary laws.

But Abdullah still feels the hostility against Muslims that’s become an increasing part of life in the U.S. in recent years. Every time he hears about some kind of terrorist incident he braces for backlash. He knows he’ll get nasty comments online whether those incidents happen in the U.S. or abroad.

“It feels like them judging our entire religion by the actions of one person,” Abdullah says. “That really stings.”

Ameenah Habib, the 19-year-old from Virginia, has also experienced an increase in anti-Muslim feeling in the past few years. She was walking home from school not long ago when someone in a passing car yelled “rag head” at her. The person yelling was apparently alluding to her head scarf. She tries to shrug off insults like this. “You just have to have a thick skin,” she says.

But that’s not always easy.

“I’ve always considered myself an American, but during the election, I didn’t feel like this was home,” Habib says, noting the hostile rhetoric toward Muslims that the 2016 presidential campaign prompted. “And that was hard for me. It was kind of an identity crisis.”

Nagel Photography/Shutterstock.com

The Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan, is the largest mosque in the U.S. In recent years, hostility toward Islam has increased.

In fact, the identity of the entire community is slowly shifting, experts say. Immigrant families are inevitably becoming more Americanized because of the influence of their U.S.-born children. Most American mosques were founded by first-generation immigrants, and as their American-born children take over, norms are changing.

With the percentage of American-born Muslims continuing to rise, their influence will be increasingly felt. Muslims are founding more local advocacy groups to tackle problems and defend their rights. In 2018, voters sent two Muslim women to the House of Representatives—the first Muslim women ever elected to Congress.

“It’s becoming more and more Americanized,” says Samer Ali, a professor at the University of Michigan. “I think Muslims, through their own lives, will demonstrate that being Muslim and American are compatible.”

In fact, the identity of the entire community is slowly shifting, experts say. Immigrant families are inevitably becoming more Americanized. It’s a shift driven by the influence of their U.S.-born children. Most American mosques were founded by first-generation immigrants. As their American-born children take over, norms are changing.

The percentage of American-born Muslims continues to rise. That signals that their influence will be increasingly felt. Muslims are founding more local advocacy groups to tackle problems and defend their rights. In 2018, voters sent two Muslim women to the House of Representatives. They were the first Muslim women ever elected to Congress. 

“It’s becoming more and more Americanized,” says Samer Ali, a professor at the University of Michigan. “I think Muslims, through their own lives, will demonstrate that being Muslim and American are compatible.”

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