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Fear of Muslim Americans is overblown

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Esther Cepeda
February 13, 2012
— It seems that every week, some really important news fails to get enough headlines. A story that crept by amid last week’s bloated political coverage was a study that showed how few Muslim-Americans are involved in terrorist activities.

“Muslim-American Terrorism in the Decade Since 9/11” was released last Wednesday by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, a consortium of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University and RTI International. It found that attempts at terrorism by Muslim Americans were down for the second year in a row. Twenty Muslim Americans were arrested for terrorist crimes in 2011—only one was accused of executing an actual terrorist attack—down from 26 in 2010 and 49 in 2009.


The author of the study, Charles Kurzman, a professor of sociology at UNC, wrote that “Muslim-American terrorism continued to be a minuscule threat to public safety last year. None of America’s 14,000 murders in 2011 were due to Islamic extremism.”


While the 20 white, African-American and Arab Muslim Americans arrested for terrorism-related crimes are obviously 20 too many, the number is significantly low considering that there are about 3 million Muslims in America. According to the consortium, 193 Muslim Americans have been arrested or convicted of violent terrorism offenses since 9/11—a number completely out of sync with the fears of the extremely vocal minority who believe that Muslim Americans hate America.


Of course to those of us paying attention, these statistics aren’t any real surprise: Studies come out all the time showing that America’s Muslim community is peacefully adopting our cultural norms like every other immigrant group in this country’s history. Last September, the Pew Research Center’s survey on Muslim attitudes found that despite constant targeting by government anti-terrorism programs—some of which act on outsize suspicions about Muslims, such as those in an ultra-slanted film that the New York City Police Department was using in training until recently—Muslim Americans are not angry or alienated. The majority have an unfavorable view of al-Qaeda, decry all violence in the name of their religion, rate their communities as excellent places to live and increasingly believe U.S. anti-terrorism policies are “sincere.”


A month before that, a Gallup poll found that the Muslim-American community is more enthused and optimistic about its country than any other religious group—and without question Muslims are loyal to America.


Some, of course, will never be swayed. A Florida fundamentalist Christian group got Lowe’s to dump its sponsorship of the reality-TV show “All-American Muslim” because it felt the show is “propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.” But the facts speak for themselves.


“Those who predicted an inevitable, rapid increase of homegrown violent extremism among Muslim Americans were wrong,” said David Schanzer, director of the center and professor of public policy at Duke University.


As Kurzman noted, “The challenge is for Americans to be vigilant about potential violence while keeping these threats in perspective.” It’s a challenge indeed, but the fearful among us can check yet another stereotype off their list. Muslim Americans are no more likely to harm us than any other Americans.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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