WASHINGTON, D.C. — A century or more ago, Catholics were discriminated against seemingly at will.
Signs saying “NINA” — No Irish Need Apply — the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses in front of Catholic churches, the police using a “paddy wagon,” so named because of the prevailing view that Irish Americans were quick to get drunk and quick to get into trouble.
It took generations, but some Irish Catholics became police officers, police chiefs, and mayors. One even became president 60 years ago.
If history is repeating itself with U.S. Muslims, it’s slow in coming. They’ve been looked on with suspicion by many Americans since the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001.
While much is being made of how most Americans are approaching the 20th anniversary of those attacks approaching, Muslim Americans who had nothing to do with the attacks — and may once themselves have been refugees from terror, civil war and authoritarian government — are bracing themselves for a wave of dread.
The chaos in Afghanistan — which Congress gave the president carte blanche to invade a week after the terror attacks — only adds more concern to a besieged minority.
A Council on American Islamic Relations report issued in April documented more than 6,000 incidents in 2020 dealing with Muslim “immigration and trauma and discrimination,” said Huzaifa Shahbaz, an Islamophobia specialist who works with CAIR.
Maltreatment of Muslim Americans fluctuates, Shahbaz said. Now is one of those bad times. “I would say that now, based on our reporting, it is getting worse,” he added.
At meetings of the U.S. Catholic-Muslim dialogue, tales of harassment directed at Muslims are told “all the time,” said Anthony Cirelli, associate director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, and the staff person assigned to the dialogue. “You’d be surprised at the continuity of the challenges they have vis-a-vis the local community.”
Cirelli said: “We work with a lot of imams and a few are scholars. Part of the dynamic of dialogue is that we literally share what’s going on in our work at the commencement of our meetings. Very often, the imams will tell us — especially the bishops — how they’re coping with various threats to their community, etc., which is always heightened when there’s an attack on the public.”
“9/11 is one of the hardest days for kids to be in school because of the bullying they face,” said Nina Fernando, the Catholic executive director of the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign, a Washington-based interfaith group committed to addressing anti-Muslim discrimination in the United States.
She cited a report from the Institution for Social Policy Understanding, which found that half of Muslim families with children in public schools reported being bullied in school. “One-third reported that a teacher or a school official was the bully,” Fernando said.
The Pew Research Center, in its polling on religion, finds American attitudes toward Muslims to be a decidedly mixed bag.
Most Americans, according to Pew, know at least a few basic facts about Islam. In a 2019 survey assessing Americans’ religious knowledge, about six-in-10 correctly identified Ramadan as an Islamic holy month and a similar share picked Mecca as the holiest city in Islam.
The same survey also asked Americans to rate their general feelings about Muslims and several other religious groups on a scale from zero to 100, with zero being the coldest, most negative feelings and 100 being the most positive.
On average, Muslims received a rating of 49 — identical to the rating given to atheists, and lower than the ratings received by other groups. Catholics were rated at 60. Jews received an average rating of 63, and Hindus were rated at 55.
Americans’ lukewarm feelings toward Muslims also are apparent in several other ways.
In a separate 2019 report, half of Americans say they do not think of Islam as part of mainstream American society, compared to 43 percent who say Islam is mainstream in America. On another issue, 44 percent of Americans think there is a natural conflict between Islam and democracy, although 46 percent say there is not.
At the same time, many Americans also recognize challenges that U.S. Muslims face. A majority of U.S. adults think there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims in the United States today and about half say that media coverage of Muslims and Islam is generally unfair.
Shoulder to Shoulder was founded in 2010, when anti-Muslim tensions were at a high point, with tensions ratcheted up with the so-called “ground zero mosque” near the former World Trade Center that was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks, and the Florida Protestant pastor who had threatened to burn the Quran, the Muslim holy book.
“An attack on one community is an attack on all of us,” Fernando said. Shoulder to Shoulder works with congregations of all faiths to counter anti-Muslim sentiment.
“We really want to equip faith communities” to counter the problem, Fernando said. “We believe faith communities are powerful agents of change.”
William Donohue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, put anti-Muslim bigotry in the context of historical anti-Catholicism.
“Surely there are anti-Muslim bigots in this country, and there are pretty good records on this in terms of violence against this — innocent Muslims,” Donohue said, but “I think they’re in much better shape in the schools and the textbooks.”
He added, “It’s fair to say from colonial times up to JFK, the problem of anti-Catholicism was visited on individual Catholics, in the schools and the workplace, without getting into great specifics.”
But Kennedy’s election in 1960 put the brakes on anti-Catholicism directed against individual Catholics. Later, though, anti-Catholicism was directed against the church as an institution “and it all has to do with sexuality,” Donohue said, starting with abortion in the 1970s to the clergy sex abuse crises of today.”
Donohue acknowledged his next comment was a generalization: “Jews are respected, Muslims are feared and Catholics are neither respected nor feared.”
Susan Silk, a psychologist based in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, Michigan, also is a disaster mental health volunteer and trainer for the American Red Cross and has responded to traumatic events such as hurricanes, floods, airplane accidents, earthquakes, terrorism and school shootings.
Silk also has volunteered with an Arabic mutual-aid organization in Dearborn, Michigan, a significantly Arab suburb on Detroit’s southwest border.
“Nobody leaves their homeland if everything is great,” Silk said, which applies not only to Asia’s Muslims but also to Latin Americans heading north toward the United States. “They had already experienced trauma and violence and hardship and that’s why they immigrated to a large extent.”
Muslims came to the United States in hope of calm and security, Silk added, except that “after 9/11 they find themselves the victims of prejudice and violence for their origins. It was really a flashback to them to something that had already happened in their past,” she said.
Near where Silk lives, she said that after 9/11 “there were restaurants that people, quote ‘regular Americans,’ boycotted” because they were run by Arabs. The Detroit area is also home to many non-Muslim Arabs who are members of Eastern churches, including Chaldeans, Maronites and Melkites — a distinction that may be lost in the heat of emotion.
Silk cautioned against “the rumor-mongering that social media provides,” quoting the adage: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
The best hope, Silk suggested, is in time.
“In the long run, I think that America has a pretty good track record — not as good as we’d like — of assimilation and accommodation, if people become a part of our community, once we get to know them,” she said.
“And (as) kids play together and go to the same schools, I think we become less fearful.”