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Are Muslims Treated As Outsiders In Their Own Country?


I'm Jacki Lyden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away this week. Coming up, in a season when many people hope to do a little spring cleaning on their personal finances, we'll talk about taking a peek at your 401K and just how much you might be paying in so-called maintenance fees.

First, though, as the presidential primaries kick into high gear, more candidates are talking about faith and some are bringing up Islam, in particular.

Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has talked about Muslims a number of times as he campaigns for the Republican nomination. Here's a clip of him on a radio program last week. He was asked whether he thought the press would be focusing on Mitt Romney's Mormonism. Let's take a listen to what Newt Gingrich had to say.


NEWT GINGRICH: Do you think you're going to see two pages on Obama's Muslim friends or two pages on the degree which Obama's consistently apologizing to Islam while attacking the Catholic church? Do you see anybody in the elite media prepared to say, gee, isn't this kind of odd that we really worry a lot about the Koran and nothing about the Bible?

LYDEN: With the word Muslim continuing to be in the national consciousness, we wanted to ask a question. Just what does it mean to be a Muslim in America? Joining me now to offer their thoughts on this question and more is TELL ME MORE regular contributor Arsalan Iftikhar. He's a civil rights attorney and the founder of the blog TheMuslimGuide.com, and he's also the author of the new book "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era."

Also with us is Jen'nan Read. She's an associate professor of sociology and global health at Duke University and she's done research on interests that include Muslim and Arab integration in the U.S. and abroad.

Thank you both very much for being with us today.

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Thanks for having us, Jacki.

JEN'NAN READ: Glad to be here.

LYDEN: Jen'nan, when a politician talks about Muslims or being Muslim, what do you think that means? Is this a code word for something?

READ: Absolutely. Being a Muslim in today's society is a new classification that basically translates into non-American. Something about being a Muslim is questioned and the idea that a politician is a Muslim means they cannot be part of the democratic society.

LYDEN: Arsalan, do you think that Muslim, in this context, is being used sort of as today's Red Menace?

IFTIKHAR: I think so, Jacki. I think, you know, it's funny to me. Whenever somebody says that President Obama is a Muslim, I feel like Jerry Seinfeld should pop out with his jazz hands and say, not that there's anything wrong with that.

You know, to me it's Republican candidates' way of other-izing him. It's essentially their way of saying he's black without saying he's black. You know, it's the one sort of accepted slur in America today where anything related to Islam can be taken pot shots at without any sort of repercussions.

LYDEN: Well, one of the things, Jen'nan, that made us think about this is – we were wondering what do we know about Muslims in America and American Muslims? You've done some research on this as a Carnegie scholar. Tell us what you found.

READ: Well, Jacki, this to me is the real irony. They're very well educated. They're professionals. They pay their taxes. They are very conservative on social issues and, quite frankly, they mimic a lot of more religious conservatives.

LYDEN: Arsalan, didn't your research also show that since so many young people came here in the '70s and '80s to get educations in things like civil engineering and medicine and dentistry, that actually a really high percentage of Muslim families has a medical professional?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. I mean, you know, my father is a doctor. My wife is a doctor. My mother and father-in-law are doctors. Some studies have shown that nearly one in 10 American-Muslim families have a medical professional as a member of their family.

And again, it speaks to the greater meta-narrative of what it means to be Muslim in America today. You know, most people know that the greatest athlete ever, Muhammad Ali, is a Muslim, but most people don't know that the funniest dude in America, Dave Chappelle, is also a Muslim.

LYDEN: Jen'nan?

READ: I would like to respond just a little bit to what Arsalan was saying. I think if we knew what Muslims really looked like in America today, we'd be a lot less worried. They look like other American immigrants who've come before them. They're upwardly mobile and one way of doing well is to mobilize around your professional affiliations, so there are, you know, Muslim lawyer associations. There's Muslim women's lawyers' associations.

So if you actually look at the evidence about who Muslims are in the U.S., they are very much a part of the system of pull yourself up by your bootstraps, even if you're already doing well, and contribute to both your family's success and to the overall success of your community.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Jen'nan Read, a professor of sociology and global health at Duke University; and Arsalan Iftikhar, a civil rights attorney and the founder of TheMuslimGuide.com. We're talking about what it means to be a Muslim.

So given what you know, how do you get the conversation to go back to the American-Muslim doctor, dentist, lawyer, and away from some of the stereotypes that we've see? Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: Well, Jacki, you know, I think a lot of it has to do with our news media today. We tend to focus on only the most sensationalistic aspects of Islamic or Muslim culture. You know, we all know the journalist adage, if it bleeds, it leads. You know, you're very rarely going to see human interest stories about free Muslim health clinics on the South Side of Chicago or in South Central L.A., which do exist.

So again, we have to reclaim this narrative by getting more human interest stories out there to humanize Muslims and all other minority demographic people to all other Americans.

LYDEN: Jen'nan?

READ: Yes. I just want to say the one way to combat stereotypes is to know somebody who doesn't fit that stereotype. The problem in our society is that even if we know a Muslim, we often don't know they're Muslims, because Muslims, in and of themselves, don't walk around with that tattooed on their forehead.

So Muslim's just one identity, just like Christians have different identities. You're a mom, you're a dad, you're a doctor, a lawyer. So until we understand the fact that Muslims are like other people and have these different roles, then we're not going to get past the stereotype that we have about Muslims.

LYDEN: Arsalan, what do you think has happened? I mean, after 9/11, George W. Bush went to a mosque and made a distinction between Islam as a religion of peace - his words - and people who were extremists and fanatics.

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, I think the one luxury that George W. Bush had that Barack Obama doesn't have as president is that George W. Bush was a Republican, so he had the political cover to know that if he reached out to the American-Muslim community, you know, his own party wouldn't attack him.

But on the flip side of that, with President Obama, you know, he has not - to date - set foot inside an American-Muslim mosque because the whisper campaigns of him being a crypto-Muslim Manchurian candidate became so toxic that in June 2008, Jacki, a few months before the election, two Muslim women wearing the hijab, the head scarf, were actually pulled out of an Obama photo opportunity at a campaign event in Detroit, Michigan by Obama's own campaign volunteers.

And so, you know, even most recently there was a reality television show called "All-American Muslim" on the TLC channel which showed the lives of five average American-Muslim families in Dearborn, Michigan. Well, because of one right wing fringe group in Florida, Lowe's Home Improvement and Kayak.com pulled their advertisements from this show which featured a U.S. federal agent who was Muslim, a Muslim woman who worked for the judge in Dearborn, Michigan.

So it shows that there's such a level of toxicity still that even sort of run of the mill average American-Muslims are still somehow seen as sinister.

LYDEN: And the show, "All-American Muslim," on TLC, as we know, was cancelled.

I'd like to ask you both a final question. Jen'nan, are you hopeful that soon Muslims won't be called upon to explain themselves so much or have to step out of presidential photo ops?

READ: So, no, I'm not hopeful. I mean, I think I'm - you know, I'm not pessimistic, but I'm pragmatic. As long as we assume that the Muslim identity is the most important identity for a Muslim in America and that that identity equals being disingenuous about being a part of the American fabric, then I don't have a lot of hope that we're going to progress.

LYDEN: Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: Sure. I agree with a lot of what Jen'nan said, but again, for me, at least being the eternal optimist, I am hopeful. I see the post-9/11 civil rights movement as just the next chapter in the civil rights history of America. So as we know from the turn of the century, the 20th century, we had Irish and Italian immigrants who were demonized. World War II, Japanese-Americans were interned in internment camps. The continuing civil rights movement of the African-American civil rights struggle.

Now we have the post-9/11 civil rights struggle and tomorrow it'll be someone else. And so, again, we have to make sure that our better angels prevail and that when politicians and prominent Americans try to marginalize any group of people, that we all stand up as a united American society to speak out against that sort of hatred and xenophobia.

LYDEN: Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and the founder of TheMuslimGuide.com and the author of the book "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era." He joined us here in Washington in the studio. Jen'nan Read is an associate professor of sociology and global health at Duke. Her research interests include Muslim and Arab integration in the U.S. and she joined us from the studios at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Thank you both for taking the time.

IFTIKHAR: Thanks again, Jacki.

READ: Thanks so much, Jacki. This was really, really interesting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.