The Silent Reason You're Not Hearing More From American Muslims

The weekend before last, my parents and a few old friends met for after-dinner tea.

This is their tradition, something they've done innumerable times since moving to the U.S. from Bangladesh in the '70s and '80s. And as usual, the conversation ranged freely from the hilarious to the serious.

So the topic arrived at their religion, Islam, and its relationship to the so-called "Islamic State".

Déjà vu, they said. Here, again, was a sinister group prowling the Middle East. As usual, it had seized the mantle of Islam for its PR. And as usual, the response from American Muslims was effectively a cavernous silence.

They lamented this repeating state of affairs. But the evening wound down, and they parted ways. No one in the broader American public would ever hear what they said.

That, in my view, is the silent reason American Muslims have yet to make themselves truly heard in America.

No one hears the quiet, immigrant folks who have hustled in this country for decades, who love it and call it their home, but who shrink from the light of public affairs -- and always have.

I wish it were otherwise. The buildup to this new war against IS has brought a burst of anti-Muslim sentiment. It started in the deep annals of the Internet -- hardly a bastion of enlightenment -- but quickly expanded into the mass media and has even seeped into my personal circles.

In August, there was the savage murder of James Foley. As anyone who saw the images knows, it was chilling, medieval, not of this era.

It never crossed my mind that anyone would hold Muslims, like my parents or myself, accountable. Then I saw this, retweeted by an otherwise respectable writer:

Oklahoma State Rep. John Bennett chose to be more blunt, saying in a recent presentation about Islam, "Is there a difference between moderate and radical Islam? I say no."

A South Carolina Republican voter, asked for his top national-policy concerns, named Muslims: "They're all over the country right now, they're infiltrating." He wants the U.S. to turn Muslims away at the border.

These are fringe voices, not representative of the American mainstream. What concerns me, however, is how publicly these sentiments are being aired.

Prejudice is often whispered, with a sense of shame; there are certain slurs, today, for instance, that no one would be caught saying. But if people are OK being associated with broad condemnations of Muslim-Americans, then relations are in a grim state indeed.

Not that it's a surprise. Americans are exhausted from over a decade of war in the Middle East. We're sick of the gruesome headlines in Nigeria, Syria, Israel, and other hotspots. But some think they see a common thread: Muslims.

In this golden age of misinformation about all things, Islam included, it's essential to say something to that -- to occupy the narrative space that Al Qaeda, IS, and others have occupied for too long.

So where is the Muslim-American pushback?

My guess: it's in a no-man's land, between my parents' generation and mine.

More than 60 percent of Muslim-American adults were born abroad, according to a 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Muslims, like many other groups that have come to America, are in their immigrant infancy. They have yet to grow the deep roots -- in politics, in the media, in neighborhoods -- that would demystify them to the wider American culture.

Take my dad, who left Bangladesh in the late '70s to pursue an engineering career in the US. Dad loves a spirited political debate, preferably in the living room, with friends, over tea. He also treasures his faith, although he'd prefer to practice it quietly, in a side room.

You see what I'm driving at. This is not someone who, seeing Muslims' good names tarnished on TV, would scramble to call a radio station or write a letter to the editor. (It doesn't help, I'm sure, that he's conscious of his accent, or that he's a Ph.D. engineer who can be clumsy with words. Sorry, Dad.)

It's one example. But it's typical of the adults I grew up around. Muslims, to me, are people who mow their lawns and pay their bills, quietly shaking their heads at the impersonators ruining their good name the world around. They're not the people running a PTA meeting or taking the lectern at City Hall.

Fortunately, there are signs of change. Muslim groups are getting active in American civics, in the hopes of crafting a new narrative.

There are the immigrants' kids -- people like myself and my peer group -- who have degrees and careers and will enter the political arena at some point. We grew up here. Many of us aren't "by the book" Muslims compared to our parents. But we know, respect, and revere our rights.

What are we up against? Islamophobia, coming as it does in these occasional flares, seems to me a small part of it. It is disheartening, especially considered against America's grim history of prejudice toward Jews, the Irish, Japanese, and African-Americans, for a partial list. But I doubt it can last. Americans' unshakable sense of equality will shine through.

The bigger challenge, to my mind, falls to my generation. Will we speak up and participate in a way that our parents never could? If so, American Islam's roots will deepen. We won't be seen as some foreign conspiracy, but as the contributing members of society we are.

What if we stay in our living rooms, hoping to ride out the occasional fear-wave? This, I submit, is asking for déjà vu. When our countrymen ask who we are, we'll have no reply.

Others will. That means our story will be written, but not by us.