Muslim in America: Changes in Perception in the Post-9/11 Era

By: Kate Moran

Director Mira Nair’s most recent project, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” has the makings of a true blockbuster: action, love, and political intrigue. Yet, despite its superstar potential, the film crept quietly into independent theaters and the occasional megaplex this past spring, going all but unnoticed by most moviegoers. When a friend and I decided to see a showing of the film recently, search results for nearby theaters showed only two locations in the entire state of Maryland, both of which were within the D.C. metro area. Its relative obscurity is unfortunate because the film carries lessons far more substantial than many may realize.

The film follows the rise and fall of Changez, a young Pakistani who is recruited following his graduation from Princeton to work for a prestigious consulting firm in New York City. Here, armed with ambition and “old-world” charm, he quickly rises through the corporate ranks to become one of the company’s youngest and most successful employees. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Changez finds himself thrust in the middle of a battle for what appears to be his national loyalty when he is made to choose between the comforting familiarity of a world full of people he has always known and between the glittering promise of the American Dream. Ultimately, Changez makes the decision to return to Pakistan. In one particularly poignant conversation between himself and an American CIA agent, he remarks to the man that following the attacks on the Twin Towers, “you picked your side; mine was chosen for me.”[1] It is this line that calls into sharp focus the need for discourse on the nature and extent of Islam’s presence in the American social and political spheres. In this essay, I will explore the Muslim-American identity in the post-9/11 era, as well as the ways in which it is affected and shaped by both events abroad and other Americans’ perceptions of Islam as both a religion and a social reality.

Similar to the identities of myriad other minorities in the United States, the Muslim-American identity is continually evolving.[2] More than a decade after the September 11th attacks, many Muslims in the United States continue to struggle with finding a way to reconcile their “American” and “Islamic’ identities. Prior to 2001, Muslim immigrants were merely regarded as foreigners by the American public—one seemingly homogeneous group amongst dozens. In the year 2000, as reported by the U.S. Religion Census, there were only 1 million Muslims living in the United States. Today, that number surpasses 2.6 million.[3]  The 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda operatives and their brandishing of a fundamentalist Islamic ideology carried lasting implications for the broader Muslim community. No longer an overlooked minority, Muslims (regardless of personal religiosity or nationality) were transformed in the eyes of the American public into something to be feared. Thrust under a microscope and scrutinized from every angle, Muslims became the newest, and most immediately threatening, “other.” It is within such a context of otherness that Muslim-Americans find themselves living in today.

It is perhaps a surprising fact that only a very small percentage of terror attacks against Americans are carried out by Muslims.[4] Those who tend to be involved with their mosques are generally better integrated into their local communities. Attacks against Americans by extremists abroad such as the bombing of U.S. embassies and consulates in Nairobi in 1998, Karachi in 2002, and Baghdad in 2003 succeed in further reinforcing Americans’ fear of Muslims, whom they often broadly label as “jihadists” or fundamentalists without understanding the deeper social, political, and cultural forces behind their actions. To be certain, such acts of violence and terrorism are inexcusable, but they are far from representative of the entirety of the worldwide Muslim community. The individuals and militant groups behind such attacks claim to speak for the entirety of the world’s adherents of Islam. Their narrative, however, is only one part of the story in the almost 1400-year history of Islam. Why, then, does it seem as if the entire “Muslim” world is hostile to the United States? A common idiom familiar to those in the media is, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Far less often do we hear of heroic activists like Malala Yousefzai than about terrorist sleeper cells in Eastern Europe and car bombings in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province. When we turn on our televisions or flip our radio dials to hear the news, we hear about weapons caches in remote Afghani villages. We hear about foiled plots to attack the United States and about Somali pirates off the coast of Africa usurping naval vessels and taking Americans hostage. We don’t hear about the movement in Egypt to prevent sexual violence against women at political protests or about the vibrant youth hip hop culture in Morocco being used as a tool for implementing political and social change. Simply put, terror sells. It is far easier to paint a monolithic portrait of what Muslims seem to be based on the actions of a few than it is to take the time and resources to understand Islam and its followers on a more individualized level.

The America in which Muslims live today is in many ways drastically different than that which emerged following the attacks on September 11th. The ways in which our society reacts have also altered. Some of the fear and hysteria has dissipated; much of it has not. There is a greater awareness of the needs of the Muslim community and an expressed desire on the part of younger generations of Americans—both Muslim and otherwise—to understand and explore different cultures and ways of life. This openness to diversity and globalized outlook is undoubtedly a fortuitous shift in the American consciousness. Yet Muslims in America continue to have to apologize for their religion on behalf of the slim minorities and fundamentalists who give their otherwise peaceful religion a bad name. In a study conducted by Pew Research Center, 81% of Muslims surveyed said that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians are never justified.[5] Countless times in the last decade, prominent Muslim clerics and imams have spoken out against terrorism and violence, even going so far as to issue fatwas (a religious decree) decrying such acts of fundamentalism.[6] The fact remains, however, that Islamophobia is still very much a presence in the political and social discourse of the United States, and continues to affect everything from national legislation and foreign policy to interactions between neighbors and classmates.

The bombing at the Boston marathon in April 2013 brought home the reality of the Islamic fundamentalist movement as well as the pain and trauma experienced by the victims of such attacks and their families. Yet the response of the community following the tragic event also tells us something about how America has changed in the decade since 9/11. Christian and Jewish clergymen worked closely with Muslim religious and community leaders to organize prayer vigils and to provide emergency relief services to attack victims. There is now more than ever, a high level of interfaith collaboration and cooperation between the various faith communities in the United States. The desire to seek justice and pursue knowledge and understanding has served as an avenue of progress and change in perception for the Muslim community in the United States. The reality of terrorism is still very much a part of the interfaith dialogue, but being able to differentiate between acts of extremism and peaceful expressions of piety is crucial to the overall understanding of Islam and its followers.

In speaking of a richly diverse and swiftly increasing demographic, it is important to remember that Muslim American identity is still very much in flux. Just as there is no singular portrait of a “Christian-American” or a “Jewish-American,” neither is there one of Muslim-Americans. Rather, there is within the Muslim community endlessly myriad shades of gray—making room for the staunchly secular to the devoutly religious and everyone in-between.

America is a nation of kosher-keeping, church-going, headscarf-wearing diversity. Ours is a country of immigrants, an interwoven tapestry of cultural, religious, and even generational identities. As politics shift and people migrate, the United States will likely absorb many immigrants from traditionally Muslim countries, be they Arab or otherwise. In response to these demographic changes, the United States will need to find ways to adapt and integrate these new groups into an increasingly globalized and diverse society. With this will come both an embracing of their newness—foods, musical influences, cultural practices—as well as a rejection of what some Americans will claim is a threat to their identity.

The Muslim population in the United States is projected to more than double in the next two decades, from 2.6 million in 2010 to 6.2 million in 2030.[7] Still, they will comprise a tiny minority, accounting for just 1.0% of the total population in the 51 countries in the Americas.[8] How much Muslims will (and should) assimilate or maintain communal separateness will change with time. But for the foreseeable future, Islamic fundamentalism will be an issue with which the United States (and the world) will be forced to grapple, both on a national scale and at an individual level. Muslim communities must continually find new ways of fostering understanding, and combatting false or negative stereotypes. How effectively they do so, and the efforts of other communities in supporting these objectives, will ultimately shape the Muslim-American identity for generations to come.


Kate Moran, a rising junior at Emory, is a Middle Eastern/South Asian Studies and Arabic major. Her academic interests include international health and development, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and refugee issues. She is currently interning at the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta and intends to pursue a career in international development or human rights advocacy when she graduates in 2015.

[1] Dir. Mira Nair. Perf. Riz Ahmed, Liev Schrieber, and Kate Hudson. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. IFC Films, 2012. Film.

[2] “American Muslim Identity.” Cordoba Initiative. Accessed June 26, 2013.

[3] Meghan Neal. “Number of Muslims in the U.S. Doubles Since 9/11.” NY Daily News, 03 May 2012. Web. 02 Aug. 2013.

[4] Charles Kurzman. “Muslim-American Terrorism: Declining Further.” Report. Accessed June 5, 2013.

[5] “Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism Mainstream and Moderate Attitudes.” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center For the People & The Press. August 30, 2011. Accessed August 6, 2013.

[6] Ibrahim Mogra and Shams Adduha. “Senior Imams Condemn Terrorism in Full.”, May 24, 2013. Accessed August 06, 2013.

[7] Brian J. Grim and Mehtab S. Karim. “The Future of the Global Muslim Population: Projections for 2010-2030.” Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project. Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project, n.d. Web. 6 June 2013.

[8] Ibid.

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