The assumption undergirding the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States is simple: More Muslims equal more terrorism and a less secure United States. And while there is utterly no evidence of a relationship between increased Muslim immigration to the U.S. and increased rates of domestic terrorism, as many as 50 percent of Americans support at least a temporary ban, one poll has found.

The question that no one is asking is: Why? Why would half the U.S. electorate think that banning nearly one-quarter of the world’s population from entry is a good idea? Are we just a country of bigots?

No, we are not. As the push for marriage equality demonstrates, we are actually very tolerant – once we get to know the group or the idea. But that’s precisely the problem with relation to Muslims: We don’t really know any.

Muslims are only 1 percent of the U.S. population, and they’re disproportionately concentrated in a handful of urban areas. A 2011 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that 40 percent of respondents had never spoken to a Muslim and 24 percent had done so occasionally. Only 6 percent reported speaking with a Muslim daily.

What these numbers lay bare is that for the average American, their only reference points for Muslims are the occasional glimpse of a foreign-looking woman in a veil and, well, the likes of Omar Sadiq Mateen, San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook or the Boston Marathon bombers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Combine that with the so-called Islamic State, and more than a decade of war and terrorism in the majority-Muslim Middle East, and it’s not that hard to comprehend why opening the doors to Muslim immigrants might give the average American some pause. Since we barely know the 3.3 million already here, we have no idea what it could mean to live with 3 million, 4 million or 5 million more.

Well, I do. For 10 months out of the year, I live with 20 million Muslims.

That’s right: 20 million Muslims.

Since accepting a position at the American University in Cairo, I have lived cheek by jowl with Muslims. Cairo, an urban megalopolis of 22 million to 24 million, is just plain teeming with them. In fact, in a city with a population density of 50,000 per square mile, I am literally surrounded by Muslims.

From the moment I open my door in the morning until I close it at night, there are Muslims at every turn. The family down the hall from me is Muslim, as are four of the five families on the floor below. The crossing guard who scolds my son for not looking twice before crossing the street is a Muslim, and so are the guards checking IDs at the entrance of his school. I sit next to Muslims on the bus to work and gripe with them about the traffic.

I argue with Muslims in faculty meetings, and go to them for advice. I teach them in my classes, and mentor them on career paths or options for higher study. I wait in long lines with them at the bank, buy groceries from them and watch them fix the air conditioner in my apartment for the umpteenth time. And when I manage to drag myself to the gym, I work out with them.

You see, when you live with 20 million Muslims, their Muslim-ness is just the backdrop for all those other characteristics that matter in being a neighbor, an anonymous bystander, a friend or a threat.

In an environment where being Muslim is the common denominator, it is absolutely certain that the person committing an act of terror will be an adherent of the faith. But Muslims are also the victims, the police coming to investigate, the reporters covering the event, the people queuing to give blood and the leaders charged with devising the best policy to counter what they and their constituents know is radical extremism promoted by groups of extremists.

One of the most important facts missing from the current discourse around terrorism and Islam is that Muslims are the most common victims of radical Islamist extremism. And when you live with 20 million Muslims, you hear them talk about this danger to their lives, their nations and their faith every single day.

So before jumping on board with the idea of a comprehensive Muslim ban, it might be worthwhile to focus instead on the realities faced by Muslims around the world, and maybe, just maybe, get to know one or two.

— Special to the Press Herald

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