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The Muslim experience in post-9/11 America

Photo courtsey of Rachel Gillum
Jun 17 2020

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American Democracy Research

Rachel M. Gillum, PhD '14, talks about the experiences of American Muslims in a post-9/11 environment and the implications for national security.

Government officials and pundits often make claims about the nature of Islam and Muslims’ beliefs, touting assumptions that influence national security and immigration policies, as well as Americans’ perceptions of their Muslim neighbors. President George Bush notably declared that “Islam is peace.” President Barrack Obama made waves by refraining from describing terrorism as “Islamic,” and President Donald Trump inflamed tensions with the Muslim American community by reversing Obama’s policy of neutral nomenclature on this topic. Often lost in the noise are Muslims’ own opinions, and little quantitative evidence existed to make sense of their diverse, wide-ranging beliefs. Rachel M. Gillum, Fellow at the Immigration Policy Lab, Stanford PhD in political science and alumna of the Stanford Institute for Research in the Social Sciences' Survey Lab, sought to address this problem by carrying out an original survey to examine Muslim Americans' experiences in the face of America’s changing security landscape after September 11th. The Muslim American National Opinion Survey (MANOS)launched with support from the Survey Labprovided a novel source of data for her book Muslims in a Post-9/11 America: A Survey of Attitudes and Beliefs and Their Implications for U.S. National Security Policy.  Gillum’s research has unlocked a whole host of insights that can be used to create more fair and effective policies aimed at improving immigrant integration, policing, and countering violent extremism in the United States and beyond.

What motivated you to carry out the MANOS survey? What questions about American Muslims did you have that weren't addressed by the current literature?

I was motivated to carry out this study in light of the post-9/11 security environment, which changed the lives of all Americans, but perhaps most dramatically, Muslim Americans. We saw restrictions of certain civil liberties in exchange for security, justified by a perceived threat from Muslims. It was clear, however, that there was little empirical evidence about Muslim Americans to examine the premises and assumptions that underlie the policies. One goal of the study is to offer a better and more accurate picture of the Muslim population in America in order to highlight the gap between the policy premises and the reality, and to help bring them into alignment.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about American Muslims?

To start, it is worth noting that this is the most diverse religious group in our country, representing at least 75 different countries and various races, languages, religious beliefs and practices. Their experiences differ significantly across various subsets of the community as do their opinions on various social and political topics.

As it relates to these assumptions underlying our security policies, contrary to the beliefs of much of the American public, the study demonstrates that Muslim Americans not only reject supporters of political violence at the same rate as Christian Americans, but that Muslim Americans have actively helped defend the United States by serving as one of the largest known sources of information toward disrupting terrorism plots since 9/11. Additionally, far from being an isolated community in the United States, Muslims have had economic and social experiences similar to those of other American communities, with later generations becoming more integrated and identifying as American at rates identical to other U.S.-born Americans.

What differences do we see in attitudes toward the U.S. government across generations of American Muslims? What about their levels of political engagement?

As one can imagine, perceptions of the U.S. government vary significantly by whether one was born and raised in the United States or not. With plenty of experience and knowledge of the American system, I find that U.S.-born Muslims, like other Americans, expect the American government to abide by its commitments to fairness, equality and due process. When the government is not living up to these standards, Americans are expected to hold their government accountable. We see this with U.S.-born Muslims who are more likely to speak out against injustices at the hands of the government, and are more politically engaged than their foreign-born counterparts. 

Muslim immigrants, however, are less likely to express criticism toward the U.S. government. Many come from less liberal regimes and do not necessarily expect governments to be transparent or behave fairly. Some also feel more vulnerable as immigrants and are not accustomed to openly critiquing political leaders or institutions. 

How has the American Muslim community's relationship with U.S. Law enforcement evolved since 9/11?

As mentioned, the Muslim American community has been incredibly helpful to law enforcement in the post-9/11 era. There are a number of examples of Muslim American organizations and community leaders reaching out to offer support and feedback to law enforcement. 

Unfortunately, however, past and ongoing policies that unfairly target Muslims have damaged the relationship between segments of the community and U.S. law enforcement. Many American Muslims—especially U.S.-born Black and Arab Muslimsexpect that U.S. law enforcement will treat Muslim criminal suspects unfairly compared to non-Muslim suspects, making these individuals reluctant to proactively engage with police. This is consistent with findings of non-Muslim populations. Several respondents cited instances where law enforcement reached out under the guise of community engagement, only for it later to be revealed that they were engaging in surveillance operations. Many of these high-profile stories are well known across the community and greatly reduce trust.

Immigrants noted they were concerned about the possibility that going to law enforcement would bring unwanted scrutiny on themselves and on their immediate family. Learning of the negative consequences some immigrants have faced after engaging with law enforcement—including non-terror related deportations or coercion to become an informant—has had a chilling effect. This type of distrust is problematic because these communities will also be less likely to go to the police when they personally need help or protection, not to mention if they are in a position to provide a tip on a suspected criminal plot.

What implications does your research have for national security?

In short, the very policies designed to keep America safe from terrorist attacks may have, in some ways, eroded one of law enforcement’s greatest asset in the fight against domestic violent extremism. The study suggests that many of the draconian policies and attention on Muslim Americans is unjustified based on what we know about the reality of the community.