Medill Reports: For Muslims in the U.S., discrimination is an uncomfortable fact of life

medillA Chicago woman returning from a trip to Indonesia was changing planes in Los Angeles. Airport security detained her for an hour, questioning her and picking through every item in her suitcase.

“I got so nervous,” she said, “I was acting like I was guilty of a crime just because I was there.

Amina Sharif, communications coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago
, said she and hundreds of other Muslims in the U.S. are confronted by situations like this almost every day –from harassment at airports to outright vandalism of homes and mosques.

“If you enter any Islamic mosque or center and talk to Muslims there, almost every single one has been a victim of discrimination or harassment of some kind,” Sharif said.

A Gallup Poll released last week showed that 53 percent of Americans view Islam negatively and more than four out of 10 admit to being at least a little prejudiced against Muslims.

For Muslim groups in Chicago, the study confirms feelings within the community and emphasizes the importance of spreading information about Islam.

CAIR-Chicago helps area Muslims fight discrimination and encourages them to be civically active. By getting Muslims involved in the community, Sharif said, members hope to dispel misinformation.

The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago has a similar approach. Kiran Ansari, interim executive director, said the group sponsors events at which people will meet Muslims as a way to get rid of prejudices.

“We’re trying to get a more proactive approach,” she said. “Meet a Muslim instead of reading about them in the newspaper.”

They’re also compiling resources about Islam for use in Chicago’s schools. For these organizations, education is key to dispelling fear and getting rid of stereotypes.

Especially since the poll showed that 40 percent of those who responded had little knowledge about the faith and 23 percent had none at all.

There is a silver lining to negative incidents involving Muslim terrorists.

The increased attention, Sharif said, is causing more people to learn about Islam and, with luck, realize that not all Muslims are terrorists. And since Sept. 11, thousands have converted to Islam.

“I think people are already having a more positive view of Muslims but they still don’t understand the faith,” she said.

Despite the gains, the poll results point up that there’s still a lot to do. There are many reported and unreported cases of discrimination, and how that will change isn’t clear.

“I don’t know where they’re going after seeing these polls,” Ansari said.

©2001 – 2009 Medill Reports – Chicago, Northwestern University.

story published on 1/27/2010