If you arrived here from Mars in the last couple of months and watched a lot of TV news, you would quickly reach this conclusion: Americans hate Muslims, and Muslims hate America.
On the one side is widespread opposition to the proposed Islamic center near ground zero in lower Manhattan, which the Republican nominee for governor of New York has promised to forcibly stop.
A Florida pastor threatened to hold a "Burn a Koran Day." Many conservatives think the country is in dire peril because Barack Obama is (in their imaginations) a Muslim.
On the other side, you have the Lebanese-born man arrested for allegedly trying to set off a bomb near Wrigley Field in Chicago and Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, accused of killing 13 people in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood.
You also have the cleric behind the New York community center warning ominously that "Burn a Koran Day" would have "enhanced the possibility of terrorist acts against America."
There is no question that feelings on both sides are running higher than usual. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, says the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Islam, but today, the figure is 30 percent. A spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations blamed the recent slashing of a Muslim cab driver in New York on "hate rhetoric."
But all these events get attention for the same reason that airplane crashes get attention: They are unusual. Considering the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and considering the U.S. invasion of two Islamic countries, the surprise is not that feelings between Muslims and non-Muslims in this country are so bitter and angry. It's that they are so amicable.
The "ground zero mosque" has elicited a great deal of opposition—but, for the most part, restrained opposition. A Fox News poll found that while 64 percent of Americans do not want the facility at that location, 61 percent—including most Republicans—say the group has the right to build it there.
Most people don't perceive all Muslims as a lurking danger. Asked whether Islam is more likely than other religions "to encourage violence," 35 percent of Americans said yes—but 42 percent said no.
Nor is the American Muslim community a seething swamp of violent militancy. There are estimated to be at least 1.3 million Muslims in this country—plenty to furnish an unending stream of suicide bombers, if the motivation existed. But it doesn't. If there is anything striking about the home front of the global war on terrorism, it's the extreme rarity of domestic jihadists.
Most American Muslims are about as radical as Jay Leno. A 2007 survey by Pew found that only 5 percent have a favorable view of al-Qaida—a number that drops to 3 percent among foreign-born Muslims. Far from praying daily for the rise of Islamic extremism, 61 percent said they were worried about it.
Unlike the alienated Muslim populations of Europe, American Muslims do not feel estranged from society. "Most say their communities are excellent or good places to live," Pew discovered. Most also believe women are better off in the United States than in Muslim countries.
Their overall satisfaction with the state of the country is no different, according to Pew, from the overall satisfaction of everyone else. They don't sound like a violent cult plotting to impose Taliban-style Shariah law on the infidels who surround them. They sound strangely like … Americans.
Which is what they are. For the most part, Muslims have achieved integration and acceptance. Only a quarter of them say they have ever suffered discrimination. Most have many non-Muslim friends.
Could that be because non-Muslims do not regard them with fear and loathing? Hate crimes against Muslims do not support the charge that Americans are frothing Islamophobes. In 2008, there were only 105 anti-Muslim incidents, compared with 1,013 against Jews.
What we see in action here is the powerful influence of deeply rooted ideas about assimilation, tolerance, and freedom. Americans generally see Muslims as just one more ingredient in the national melting pot. Muslims mostly identify with our way of life.
The tensions and conflicts in evidence in our public debates do exist, but they give a misleading picture of modern American society. The reality is the one proclaimed by the Founders: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
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