TV Land is blaring inside Post 19 of the American Legion in Muncie, Indiana. Horses trample across the screen and cowboys stand up in their stirrups, shouting to one another and shooting. No one seems to be watching this rerun of Walker, Texas Ranger, but the volume on the TV that looms high on a shelf in the corner would be loud enough to hamper conversation – if there were any in the room.
On this Monday afternoon, the lights are dimmed over the ’70s-style wood tables and chairs that fill most of the club. The only movement is at the bar, where one gray-haired, short-statured white woman disinterestedly turns the pages of the day’s newspaper. A heavyset bartender in his 70s fills her glass, then lumbers out from behind the bar to sit on one of the stools, stare into space, and think. The cowboys keep on shooting.
While the program moves into a commercial break, doors open at a different gathering place in this town of 70,000 people. Four miles away, beyond the White River, the Ball State University campus, and a boulevard of fast food restaurants, the Islamic Center of Muncie awaits a round of worshippers. Men with reverent attitudes, many of them with dark hair and bronze or olive-colored skin, file inside. Their feet tread the thick white carpet and they kneel, praying and listening to a sermon that instructs them to love one another, sacrifice, and have self-discipline.
Some of those attending the mosque are recent immigrants from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and elsewhere, now making their homes in the American Midwest. Some are converts. Some plan to live their whole lives in Muncie; others are only here for school or work. All are part of a population of American Muslims that has more than doubled in the past 20 years.
And, like any minority group that grows within a majority culture, they haven’t been without opposition.
Fahad Aseery arrived in the United States from Saudi Arabia in mid-August 2009 as a doctoral student in Ball State University’s special education program. An avid fan of American movies and sporting events, he was pleased when he learned that admission to Ball State men’s basketball games is free for students.
With a wave of his student ID, he walked past the ticket takers, into the cavernous hall of the arena, and through one of the many curtains that hang at the entrances to the court and viewing area. He looked around and saw some open seats several rows up. Glancing down at the action already taking place on the court, he picked an open chair and sat down. Less than 10 minutes later, he sensed someone was approaching him and looked up.
Three middle-aged men were moving toward him. The first stopped just short of Fahad’s knees and held out his ticket.
“You’re in my seat,” Fahad remembers hearing the man grumble.
Embarrassed, Fahad stood up. It was his first American basketball game at this institution or any other, and he didn’t know how the seating worked.
“I’m sorry,” he said with an accent, five years removed from his accent of today, which still makes him self-conscious. “It’s my first time.”
The men behind the speaker grumbled and watched as Fahad turned to leave. When he looked back, he saw a menacing look on the first man’s face.
“Go home,” the first man said. “Go back where you came from.”
Fahad knew the man was talking about more than his off-campus apartment.
Snap judgements because of the color of Fahad’s accent or physical appearance aren’t unusual to him. They aren’t uncommon to most Muslims; in fact, when researchers from Pew Research Center surveyed Muslims in 2011, 43 percent said they’d had at least one type of discriminatory experience in the past year. These experiences could range in severity from suspicious treatment to a physical attack.
Fahad and his wife have had about one encounter with discrimination per year since that first experience at the basketball game. These have ranged from his wife being ignored at a department store to a full-on verbal fight between Fahad and another patron in a gym. Like one in five Muslims, Fahad has been singled out by airport security.
In a post 9/11 America, relations between Muslims and those of other faiths have been strained at times. In February, a man knocked on the door of a home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. When it opened, he shot the first people he saw in the head, killing three Muslims. Though these kinds of violent acts are few and far between, they garner plenty of media attention and give meaning to the statistics of fear.
Some of the numbers show the ways in which Americans fear or dislike Muslims more than almost any other religious group.
In one study, Pew Research randomly selected a sample of more than 3,000 adults in the U.S. They asked them to rank eight religious groups on a scale from 1 to 100, where the lower numbers represented colder (negative) and the higher numbers warmer (positive) feelings.
The results, released in July 2014, show considerable coldness toward Muslims. With an average rating of 40, the group ranked lower than every other group, including atheists.
These statistics come as no surprise to Bobby Ellis, a 24-year-old newspaper photographer at the Frankfort State Journal in Kentucky, who converted to Islam in 2012 while he was studying photojournalism at Ball State. A Hoosier by birth, he grew up in Shoals, Indiana, a town with a population of 736 and few enough non-white residents that they could be counted on one hand.
When he came to college, Bobby relished the opportunity to interact with people from various backgrounds. After meeting Muslims from places such as Afghanistan and Tunisia and being impressed by their morals and understanding, Bobby decided to learn more, eventually making his declaration of faith.
His conversion wasn’t easy. While his college friends were largely understanding, Bobby’s mother, an attorney, didn’t want the news of his decision to become public in their home county, fearing that it would tarnish her public image. Often, Bobby overhears conversations in which people speak derogatorily of Muslims, never guessing that the brown-haired, blue-eyed American standing nearby is one of them.
The battle is most difficult, Bobby finds, when waged against prejudiced Republicans and those of the older generation, like many who live in his hometown. Republicans and older Americans (ages 65 and older), as well as those who identified as Evangelical Protestants, ranked Muslims last, giving them scores between 30 and 33.
Bobby has seen this with his grandma, a senior citizen and member of the Republican Party, who doesn’t actually know her grandson is a Muslim. “I don’t think her little heart can take it,” Bobby said.
When he was thinking about converting, Bobby visited his grandma’s home, hoping to test the waters. They sat down at her round kitchen table and he tried to be casual.
“I just wanted to let you know that I’ve been learning about Islam at school,” he said. “I’ve actually been reading some of the Quran.”
“Oh, those people murder their children,” she responded. “I hope you don’t end up with a bomb on your chest from reading that.”
Bobby said he doesn’t always broadcast his religious affiliation. In fact, he said he wants to wait to become more open about his religious views until some of the negative attention given to Islam in the news media has died down. At that point, he hopes, the conversation could turn from indignant questions asking how he could support terrorism to a real dialogue about Islam, its beliefs, and practices.
In this, he aligns with a third of American Muslims, who, in the 2011 Pew study, ranked “negative views about Muslims” and “negative media portrayals” as the most important problems facing American Muslims.
The conflict between Muslim immigrants and Americans isn’t a surprise to the country’s leading social psychologists. In fact, Walter Stephan, an oft-cited researcher of intergroup relations, called it “expected.”
In the 1990s, Walter published the Intergroup Threat Theory. Its premise: feelings of prejudice are caused by feelings of threat. The theory describes four major ways in which people and groups feel threatened: realistic threats, symbolic threats, intergroup anxiety, and negative stereotypes.
“It turns out to be very difficult to end stereotypes if they’re well-established,” Walter said. “People tend to trust what they already believe.”
Eliot Smith, an Indiana University professor of psychology and cognitive science, said ignorance plays a role as well.
“The evidence is very clear that getting to know someone who is a member of the group reduces your prejudice against that group,” Eliot said.
But it can be hard for non-Muslim Americans to have meaningful contact with Muslims. Less than 40 percent of Americans can say they know someone who is Muslim, according to data from the 2014 Pew Research Center study. Even if they go to school in a diverse environment, their interactions with people of other religions may be limited to passing glances in the hallway and on buses.
Compounding the problem are the nearly half of U.S. Muslims who said most or all of their close friends are Muslim. Like Fahad, who moved his family 40 minutes down the interstate to Fishers, Indiana where there is a larger Middle Eastern presence, many immigrants subscribe to a “stay with the pack” mentality. Common in minority groups, it happens in part because there’s less risk of experiencing intergroup anxiety if members of one group don’t have to interact with members of another.
There comes the paradox: members of a minority group who want to preserve their home culture risk alienating wary white Americans, thereby setting themselves up to receive more discrimination.
The multiculturalist efforts of the late 1980s and after may have had some effect; adults aged 18 to 29 tend to rate Muslims more positively and have more Muslim friends. But those of the older generations – and even those younger adults who have received their schooling and have entered the workforce – sometimes have few opportunities to get to know people of different races or religions.
Back inside the American Legion in Muncie, the man resting beside the bar, José Gaitan, adjusts his long, gray ponytail and the blue bandana folded and tied around his head. He gets up to place a Coors beer on the bar in front of the club’s newest patron, 52-year-old Brian Brinkman, who’s stopping by the Legion on his way home from work.
Neither of the men know anyone who is Muslim. Brian pauses, mentally scanning his list of friends and acquaintances. He comes up with nothing. “I wouldn’t say I’m racist,” Brian said. “More than anything, I’m just wary, because I don’t know what they believe. I’m sure they’re not all bad, but if you blow up a building or put a bomb on a train, that doesn’t help you much. You know, there’s always that one guy who gives the whole group a bad name.”
Sometimes, Brian and his wife and two high school-age daughters will visit one of Muncie’s Walmarts and see a Muslim woman wearing a hijab or another head covering.
“I’ll just give them the white guy head nod and move on about my business,” Brian said. He glances at his watch, then up at the TV.
José cocks his head, apparently unable to remember any conversation that he’s had with Muslims. Then he breaks a smile and says to Brian, “Hey, you know a Jew.”
The two laugh, satisfied to have some diversity in the mix. They change the subject and get back to their beers.