RALEIGH, N.C. – Nine years of scrutiny have made some American Muslims wary of the federal government, and that has the U.S. Census bureau working to make sure its crucial survey doesn’t become a casualty of fear.
Muslims are not the only group the agency has identified as needing special attention, but they may be among the likeliest to shun the mail-in questionnaires. America’s Muslim population includes large numbers of recent immigrants, and community leaders say nearly a decade of bearing the brunt of the country’s post Sept. 11 terrorism fears have taken their toll.
“You still have people in a kind of paranoid state of mind,” said Khalilah Sabra, director of the Muslim American Society’s Freedom Foundation in North Carolina.
That might be particularly true in the Raleigh-Durham area, she said, where seven local Muslim men were arrested in July and charged with plotting to travel overseas to carry out acts of terrorism.
Sabra, who is working to convince Muslims in the area to participate, says she’s heard many times this year from people who plan to ignore the census forms out of fear.
Jihad Shawwa, of Raleigh, has heard the same concerns, but says those fears risk putting American Muslims in a position where they don’t take full advantage of their citizenship.
“I’m not going to stretch my mind to the point where I’m living in fear because I’m a Muslim,” he said.
Even absent the fresh trauma of the 2009 arrests, some of the area’s 30,000 to 40,000 Muslims would likely be wary of the census, said Mohamed El-Gamal, who leads the local Muslim American Public Affairs Council.
“If what happened in July had not happened, skeptical people would still be skeptical,” he said.
The census is prohibited from sharing information that could identify individuals, including with other federal agencies or law enforcement. Census workers also take an oath, swearing for life to protect the confidentiality of data, with a possible five years in prison for breaching that trust.
Technically, no Muslims will be counted at all. Also absent from the count will be Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and religious believers and unbelievers of all kinds because religion is not a category tracked by the census.
Still, for Americans who have been the subject of suspicion since the September 11 attacks – many from countries where governments put little stock in oaths or restraint – the survey is a tough sell.
“It’s very hard to convince people that this is going to be a vital tool to help them,” said Sabra. “They’re afraid that information will be used not for them, but against them some time in the future.”
Wariness about the census is common among recent immigrants, regardless of religious affiliation, and it isn’t the only factor that makes a population difficult to count.
Homeless people are by definition hard to locate, since they lack permanent addresses. People who have lost jobs or seen their homes foreclosed on are likelier to make frequent moves, making it harder to count them. Even ideology can play a role: this year, some conservatives, irked at what they see as federal overreach, are urging people to either skip the form or answer only the question asking how many people live at their address.
The bureau has been working to ease these concerns for more than a year, said Tony Jones, a spokesman with the agency’s Charlotte office. “Partnership specialists” have fanned out across North Carolina and other states, going to houses of worship, schools and other gathering points to distribute information and answer questions.
Rahman Khan, one such specialist in Charlotte, has been traveling the state, visiting mosques and setting up meetings with community leaders. Part of the fear, he said, comes from a lack of understanding about how census data is used.
“A woman in Greensboro told me just the other day that she was told Muslims shouldn’t fill out the census,” he said. “Once I talk about the importance of the census and how they don’t ask questions about religious affiliation, people are less reluctant.”
Nationally, the census bureau has teamed with organizations like the American Muslim Interactive Network and the Muslim American Society to convince Islamic believers they have nothing to fear from the survey.
At stake is roughly $400 billion in annual federal dollars that flows to local communities based on the count, which is why advocacy groups are working so hard to boost participation. They recognize, though, that convincing Muslims takes more than simple assurance.
“I don’t want people to feel like we can brush it under the rug,” said Hazami Barmada, president of the interactive network, which recently held an open forum with census officials in Washington. “It’s important for the U.S. government to say yes, your community has legitimate fears.”
Even for those willing to fill out the forms, though, the lack of check-off boxes indicating Arab or Persian ethnicity is a sore point.
“There’s so many categories,” Shawwa said. “Japanese, Korean, Cuban. Why not Arab?”
Some of the groups urging American Muslims to participate are asking people to press elected officials for such categories on the 2020 census.
“That’s kind of hard to accept,” Sabra said. “If people feel they’re taking a risk by filling this form out, it doesn’t help when they don’t see themselves reflected in it.”
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