By Leigh Carmichael
Around 1.6 billion Muslims inhabit the world today, and an estimated three to seven million reside in the United States. Despite the fact that Muslims are the largest unreached people group, only 2% of Protestant Christian missionaries are engaging the Muslim world. In fact, 86% of Muslims globally have not had personal contact with a Christian, which equates to only one in seven Muslims having met a Christian. Clearly, Christians who live in the United States have a tremendous opportunity to minister to the millions of Muslims residing in the United States. Thus, it is perplexing as to why the 257 million Christians in the US seem reluctant to engage this prime mission field even though it is in their own backyard.
For the most part, Muslims in America remained quietly under the radar until the events of September 11, 2001, when they were unwittingly thrust into the spotlight. The tragic events of 9/11 signaled a shift in American perception of Muslims around the world, and also highlighted an unprecedented focus on Muslims in America. Consequently, since 9/11, prejudice and discrimination against Muslims have escalated in the United States.
Yet, the Bible calls for Christians to love their neighbors, which rightly includes Muslims. Therefore, it is crucial to ascertain the basis for this neglect of Muslim ministry in the United States, and why Christians are ignoring this opportunity for outreach. Thus, this study will examine American Christians’ perception of Muslims, whether or not prejudice exists in the American Church, and also evaluate how Christians’ perception of Muslims affects ministry to Muslims. In order to resolve these questions, it is important to have an understanding of the history and key events surrounding Muslims’ presence in America. Significant factors contributing to this include Muslims’ immigration to America, their overall experience in America, and the factors that have shaped American Christians’ perception of Muslims. Most importantly, it is crucial to examine how American Christians can be prepared to engage Muslims who are figuratively, and, sometimes literally, on their doorsteps.
Ninety-four surveys were administered to collect responses from American Christians about their perception of Muslims and how they obtain the majority of their information about Muslims. Twenty-four physical surveys were received after being distributed at a local nondenominational church. An identical survey was created on-line and a link was distributed to Christians, which resulted in an additional seventy surveys. The age range of participants was nineteen to seventy. Twenty-nine participants were male and fifty-eight were female. All participants were U.S. Citizens and Christians. Seven surveys were eliminated because participants did not meet the required criteria, which resulted in a remaining total of eighty-seven surveys. Complete survey results are presented in Appendix A.
In addition, participant observation was incorporated in this research project. The author of this paper wore a hijab, which is a Muslim head covering, to four nondenominational Christian churches. The same color and style of hijab was utilized consistently so as not to attract more or less attention. A control was utilized in the form of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, college-aged woman who would typically be perceived to be an American. Both participants visited the churches at the same service time, but entered and sat separately to determine whether they received the same reception. In addition, other observers who were helping with the study sat nearby and took notes about people’s reactions. Field notes from this experience are recorded in Appendix B.
Muslim Immigration to America
Before examining the perception of Muslims in America, it is important to understand the historical journey of how Muslims first arrived in America. However, this cannot be accomplished without difficulty, as the historical reports of Muslim immigration to the United States vary widely and are not without dispute. Purportedly, the initial Muslim immigrants were actually forced by means of the African slave trade in the 1700s. Edward Curtis briefly traced the lives of a handful of slaves during colonial times that arrived in what is now the United States. He suggests that perhaps thousands to a million Muslims were residing in North America, but stops short of providing any evidence of this notion. He also claims that Muslims might have traveled in 1492 alongside Columbus, but, again, abstains from producing any evidence or sources for this claim. Ghulam M. Haniff provides a different assessment when he admits,
“The claim that Africans imported as slaves included Muslims, while quite plausible in view of the disparate evidence collected, has yet to be subjected to credible scholarly scrutiny. Unfortunately, slaves did not leave behind a community of any kind nor did they develop institutional structures in the form of mosques or graveyards that could have constituted tangible proof. However, some descendants of African slaves did embrace Islam during the first half of the twentieth century but their numbers never amounted to more than a handful.”
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