Days before the 12th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, 40 members of the San Angelo, Texas Tea Party gathered to discuss the purported threat of Muslims in America. Requests for religious accommodation pursuant to the First Amendment were turned into doomsday scenarios of Muslims colonizing America by a representative from ACT! For America, a notorious anti-Muslim hate group. The speaker was so effective that one participant declared that four Muslim families in San Angelo was four too many.
The real problem is not too many Muslims, but too few Muslims.
Had the San Angelo residents known Muslim Americans as their neighbors and friends, they would have immediately recognized the false and hate-filled propaganda peddled by organizations like ACT! For America. Contrary to the media's selective focus on terrorism committed by Muslims, the vast majority of Muslims in America live quite ordinary lives. Their priorities in life are the same as all other Americans - working hard at their jobs and building their businesses, raising and educating their children, and practicing their constitutionally protected faith.
Indeed, a large number of Muslim Americans are first or second generation immigrants who came to America in pursuit of educational and economic opportunity. Like many immigrants who came before them from various continents, they are an invaluable asset to the economy and have become vested in the prosperity of the United States. To accuse Muslims of seeking to destroy America exposes the thinly veiled agenda of organizations profiting from Islamophobia.
If they had dealings with Muslim neighbors and co-workers, families in San Angelo would experience first-hand the truth to a 2007 Pew poll finding that Muslims are on average middle class, law abiding citizens who mirror the U.S. public in education and income level. Like many San Angelo residents, a majority of Muslims in America consider religion to be a very important part of their lives. Thus, their mosques serve as community centers that provide important social services, after school youth programs, and a place for socialization.
San Angelo residents who interacted with Muslim women would also discover the fallacy of stereotypes of Muslim women as oppressed, meek, and barred from education. Muslim American women are one of the most highly educated female religious groups in the United States. Indeed, a 2008 Gallup poll found that Muslim women earn incomes at a rate higher than the average U.S. female population, second only to Jewish American women. As such, they would meet Muslim women who are doctors, engineers, and business owners who, like their non-Muslim women counterparts, juggle their work and family obligations.
All of these experiences would expose the intentional de-humanization of millions of people in the United States by a cottage industry of hate groups that exploit fear and hate to enrich themselves. The spread of such hate leads to discrimination against Muslim children in schools, Muslim men and women in workplaces, and Muslim families in public accommodation. Personal interactions with Muslims would cause many of these San Angelo residents to realize that the most American thing to do is support equality for all, regardless of one's religion, rather than propagate un-American ideals of intolerance and hate.
The best antidote to hate is education and dialogue. Hence more Muslim families may be just what San Angelo and other small towns in America need.
Sahar Aziz is an associate professor at Texas A&M School of Law where she teaches national security, civil rights, and Middle East law. She is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and a member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association.