Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
Nearly a year ago, the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks raised a flurry of questions about Americans’ attitudes toward the increasing numbers of Muslims living, working, and practicing their faith as members of the American community. Now, a recent spate of attacks indicates that these questions are far from answered.
First, Representative Michele Bachmann alleged that the Muslim Brotherhood was exerting influence over the State Department through Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s longtime aide. Senator John McCain, among others, denounced the letter, but the controversy highlighted the paucity of Muslims in high-level government positions, as well as their vulnerability to similar attacks. Then, just days ago, a mosque in Joplin, Missouri was devastated by fire, the second conflagration in only five weeks. The first fire, which was far less destructive, was ruled arson. The cause of the second fire has yet to be determined, but CNN reports that, according to members of the mosque’s community , it’s not an isolated occurrence. “We’ve had our mailbox destroyed. Our sign was burned. The sign has been shot with guns. People would sometimes drive by and yell at us,” said a spokeswoman.
Finally, the tragic shootings at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, while not directly targeted at Muslims, raised suspicions that the shooter, who had ties to white supremacist groups, may have associated the members of the Sikh community with Muslims because of the Sikhs’ distinctive dress. A friend of Wade Michael Page, the shooter, said that Page used to talk about “the racial holy war, like he wanted it to come.” In April of this year, 92 House members pointed out this disturbing phenomenon in a memo to Attorney Holder, calling on him to begin collecting data on hate crimes committed against Sikh Americans.
Last year, Public Religion Research Institute conducted a large-scale survey on Americans’ attitudes toward increasing diversity in the U.S. The survey found that while Americans strongly affirm the principles of religious freedom and religious tolerance, Americans are also divided on whether the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life (47% agree, 48% disagree). A majority (54%) of Americans agree that American Muslims are an important part of the religious community in the U.S., but they remain divided over whether they would feel comfortable with certain public displays of Muslim faith. For example, a slim majority (51%) of Americans say they would be somewhat or very comfortable with a mosque being built near their home, while 46% reported that would not be comfortable with this.
Part of the problem may be that, despite the fact that Muslims are among the fastest-growing religious groups in the country, Americans overall tend to have fairly limited contact with Muslims, and know little about the basic tenets of Islam. Just 3-in-10 (30%) Americans say they have a conversation with someone who is Muslim at least occasionally. And only 14% of Americans say they know “a lot” about the religious beliefs and practices of Muslims, while over 8-in-10 say they know “a little” (57%) or “nothing at all” (29%).
In news reports, Muslim Americans express their distress over these flare-ups of anti-Muslim sentiment. A New York Times article quotes an unnamed Muslim woman who works for the U.S. government, and was disturbed by Rep. Bachmann’s attacks against Huma Abedin. “In the U.S.,” she said, “instead of seeing people like Huma and myself as Americans, they see us as Muslims first.”