The following is a guest post from Aftab A. Malik, a member of the Our Shared Future Advisory Board.

Anders Behring Breivik, the calculating mass-murderer who bombed and then butchered his fellow citizens, killed because he feared it. Right-wing extremists have made electoral gains across Europe, using it as a central plank in their election campaigns. Today, decent, hardworking Americans who are struggling to provide for their families are being told by a determined cadre of individuals that they face the same threat: the “Islamization” of their country, “creeping shariah” and “stealth jihad.” In other words: threats from Islam and the American Muslim community.

These scandalous slurs against the American Muslim community run deep. During the 2008 presidential election, Obama had to repudiate claims a number of times that he was a Muslim, with his campaign emphasizing that he “has never been a Muslim and is a committed Christian.” This sustained mantra was necessary because Islam and Muslims had come to represent something wholly negative and unacceptable in the American psyche, something that presidential hopeful Obama could not be associated with.

A number of polls confirm these disturbing trends. A 2010 Gallup Study, Religious Perceptions in America, found that more than 43 percent of Americans admit to feeling at least “a little” prejudice toward Muslims, while a 2006 USA Today-Gallup Poll revealed that 22 percent of Americans said they would not like to have a Muslim as a neighbor.

Despite such strong opinions, it is surprising to learn that most Americans do not have a Muslim friend, classmate or co-worker, which begs a question: How then are these opinions about Islam and Muslims being formed?

As revealed by the 2011 report by the Center for American Progress, Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America, the institutionalization of distrust of Muslims and the demonization of Islam is being orchestrated by a small network of bloggers, pundits and self-professed “experts” on Islam. Through their efforts, the beliefs of mainstream American Muslims are conflated with the perverted notions of “Muslim” terrorists. Thus, the lines that separate Islam and terrorism are blurred. Yet, it was Colin Powell who–during the height of “Obamaphobia”–asked, “Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?” He emphatically answered his own question: “No. That’s not America.”

Within a vacuum of ignorance about Islam and Muslims, coupled with genuine fear of terrorism, it has been all too easy to stereotype Muslims, vilify Islam and cast both as an “existential threat” to America. As such, it would be wrong to label the significant number of Americans who admit to knowing not enough, or very little, about Muslims and Islam as “Islamophobic” since they haven’t had the benefit of studying Islam or knowing Muslims first-hand. Despite this, some polls do indicate that significant numbers of Americans do not hate American Muslims or fear Islam. A 2011 CNN poll conducted in March revealed that 46 percent of the American public did not hold negative views of American Muslims while a FOX News Poll also conducted the same year in February, revealed that 43 percent of viewers believed that Islam is a peaceful religion.

If Muslims fail to creatively and effectively address and bridge this knowledge-gap, inevitably, it will be filled by aggressive anti-Muslim campaigns that feed on fear and capitalize on ignorance, which will eventually succeed in eroding a key principle upon which the United States was built: religious tolerance. Jefferson campaigned for the recognition of “the religious rights of the ‘Mahamdan,’ the Jew and the ‘pagan,’” and was successful in passing the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786. With few exceptions, as the Founders saw it, faith made citizens more productive and law-abiding. Certainly, the majority of American Muslims believe that success can only come from hard work and abiding by the law of the land. But who are the American Muslim community?

American Muslims are among the most educated and diverse religious community in the United States. According to a national survey of American Muslims conducted by Gallup in 2009, after American Jews, American Muslims are more likely to call themselves liberal. American Muslim women are among the most highly educated compared with females from other religious groups and, generally, American Muslims are the second most highly educated religious group after Jews. More American Muslims report having a job (70 percent) than the overall American population (64 percent); and the American Muslim community is more likely to give to charity (70 percent) than the US general population (64 percent).

Despite what the fear mongers claim, American Muslims do not see a conflict between being American and being Muslim and, as a 2007 Pew poll revealed, American Muslims “reject Islamic extremism by larger margins than do Muslim minorities in Western European countries.” American Muslims do not wish to implement shariah in America, promote terrorism or subvert the American Constitution. Secular, democratic America is their home, and if you ask any one of them then you would know that they wouldn’t want it any other way.

Guest posts on our blog are written by individuals with whom we collaborate externally. We publish them to stimulate discussion and debate by exploring ideas. The opinions expressed in them do not necessarily reflect the official position or views of the British Council.