CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Muslim women wearing shrouds disturb some Americans, who are unsettled by this display of an unfamiliar culture. In France, revulsion is so strong that Islamic veils were banned in public.
When a tiny fringe of young Muslims overseas become fanatical terrorists, some Americans fear that every U.S. mosque and Islamic family may harbor potential extremists. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., held hearings into this supposed threat -- but found no evidence.
Suspicion of Muslims, and hostility toward them, is strong in America. Local protests erupt when U.S. Muslims seek permits to build mosques. Last month, a Missouri mosque was burned, acid was thrown on an Islamic school in Illinois, and other attacks occurred. The murder of six Sikhs in Wisconsin evidently happened because the killer mistook them for Muslims.
Some Republican presidential contenders spread alarms that U.S. Muslims want to impose Sharia religious laws on America, and some conservative legislators foolishly vote to halt this imaginary menace. Fundamentalists exchange thousands of e-mails voicing lurid allegations about the misunderstood faith.
However, an important new book -- The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West? -- says this turmoil is baseless, and it's almost identical to apprehensions once voiced against incoming Catholics and Jews.
During the 1800s, Protestant America was angered by waves of Catholic newcomers from Ireland, the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. "Nativist" clashes and riots happened in several U.S. cities. In Philadelphia in 1844, a cannon battle was fought between Protestants and federal troops defending a Catholic neighborhood, killing around 20 people. Anti-Catholic prejudice lingered at least through the 1950s, but eased after John F. Kennedy was elected the first Catholic president.
Author Doug Saunders says today's intolerance of Muslims is somewhat a replay of America's past rejection of Catholics. He predicts the new social gulf will fade, just as the previous one did, as the immigrants gradually end their isolation and melt into the U.S. cultural hodgepodge.
Already, he writes, American Muslims are assimilating rapidly and becoming solid citizens -- usually well-educated ones. Saunders told Public Radio:
"The level of religiosity among Muslims when they come to the West tends to fall fairly quickly to approximately the level of religious observance of the people around them. So when Muslims come to France from the Arab countries of North Africa, they tend to become not very religiously observant. About a fifth of them become outright atheist."
Most young American Muslims simply want to become educated and attain careers, like other Americans. Only a minuscule few become zealots.
Columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote that some Americans spew a "wave of bigotry and simple nuttiness" toward Muslims. He likened it to the fear of Japanese-Americans that arose in the 1940s after the Pearl Harbor attack.
Someday, we hope, Muslims will be as welcome throughout American society as Catholics and Japanese-Americans have become.