Like other typical American families, my family was stumped by a Jeopardy answer. “The most common name in the world,” Alex Trebek read. We thought to ourselves for a few seconds. My mother then broke the silence announcing, both hesitantly and with some boldness, “John!” When the Jeopardy timer chimed, Alex stared down the contestants: “What is Muhammad?”

Alex then repeated in that ominous tone of his, “What is Muhammad?” Normally, my family would move on to concentrating on the next Jeopardy answer or comment on how unprepared the contestants always are. Instead, we were surprised by our own ignorance. Though the two males in our house, my father and brother, are named Muhammad, no one in my family made the connection that Muhammad would be the world’s most common name. If my family, which is Muslim, did not know this fact, how many non-Muslim Americans would? How much do Americans really know about Islam and Muslims? How much of what Americans think they know is accurate? How does Americans’ knowledge, and more likely misinformation, about Islam affect their attitudes towards Muslims in America and abroad?

The nuns at my Catholic school certainly knew about Islam. They knew enough to conclude that during religion class I should be sent to the principal’s office to study books on Islam my parents had provided. I partially brought this exclusion on myself though. The principal frantically called my mother one day when I was in kindergarten. Though usually quiet — the boldest thing about me was my big, brown eyes — I had announced to my class that, contrary to Sister’s lesson that day, Jesus was not the son of God and that God was a being who couldn’t have children like humans could. That was what I had been taught by my mother at home, and, being a diligent student, I felt that I should point out when Sister was making stuff up.

Over time, I learned to respect what Christianity and Islam had in common. One day, when I was in second or third grade, I came home in tears, telling my mother that because we were Muslim, I would never have a hope of being cast as Virgin Mary in the Christmas pageant. She reminded me that though Muslims do not celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday or have traditions associated with Jesus’ birth, I still could enjoy participating in the annual Christmas pageant. Muslims do believe in the Immaculate Conception and that Jesus was a beloved prophet of God’s. I triumphantly returned to school the next day, ready to try out for the pageant like all the other kids. I never did become Virgin Mary, but I did proudly take the role of one of the three kings who visited Jesus’ manger when I was in eighth grade. As a Religion major at Wellesley College, I enjoyed comparing the Qur’anic versions of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark and Joseph and his coat with the Biblical versions I remembered from Catholic school.

As I have become more comfortable living as a Muslim in a Christian country, Americans, however, seem to be more confused about Islam. In today’s world, you would have to live in a cave not to have heard of Muslims. Having an accurate understanding of Islam on the other hand, free of media generalizations and prevalent stereotypes of Muslims, would require a similarly reclusive lifestyle. While the media and others seem to think they have Muslims figured out, the truth is that Americans have little knowledge of true Islam and what Muslims are really like. We rely on biased media reporting, generalizations and stories that we’ve heard about Muslims to characterize Islam. Muslims, especially American Muslims, are the victims of mistaken identity. Our fellow citizens think all Muslims are terrorists and women-oppressors, yet Muslims know we are actually much better people than the stereotypes make us out to be.

In college I would often bring Islam into class discussions. Sometimes I would continue these discussions with professors and fellow students after class. What always surprised me was how much people did not know about Islam. I distinctly remember a Political Science professor of mine sheepishly confessing his ignorance of Islam. We were both a little disheartened by his admission; if he held a doctorate, shouldn’t he have a general knowledge of Islam? In addition, if he, as one of the most educated people in the country, didn’t think he knew enough about Islam, how many people then truly knew nothing about Islam? The challenge for American Muslims is to educate our fellow non-Muslim citizens about us and help Americans rise above the misinformation.

Muslims hold prominent positions in society, as chief executive officers, doctors, partners in law firms, architects, consultants, accountants, investment bankers, writers, social service workers, and engineers across the country. As they actively build coalitions with each other and other like-minded groups for various purposes — political influence and gender equality among others, American Muslims are reaching an unprecedented level of recognition in America.

Some American Muslims are rediscovering their roots. Muslims are realizing how like their own lives was the Prophet’s. The Prophet Muhammad’s emigration from Mecca to Medina was called the hijra. The hijra was a defining moment for Islam because Muhammad moved from his hometown so that he could group his followers and live his religion in freedom away from those against his movement in Mecca. American Muslims see themselves as in their own small hijras. Muhammad’s life mirrors some aspects of the plight of Muslims in America: struggling against oppression, in varying forms, in search of an authentic identity and freedom of expression. In America, the land of opportunity, the belief in man’s ability to overcome negative forces is all the more resounding.

Many American Muslims feel strongly that American values and Islamic values, as derived from the Qur’an and hadith (traditions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), are similar — self-respect, an emphasis on family, importance of education, supporting oneself, contributing to society, individualism. In essence, being a Muslim can often mean being an American.

The most significant connection between American society and Islamic values is the idea of self-improvement in an open and free environment. For example, Muhammad himself was a businessman who provided for his family by working hard. In fact, with the emergence of Islam and its emphasis on economic self-sufficiency, the caravan trading routes of Arabia flourished. These Islamic values complement an American lifestyle, and, for that reason, American Muslims believe that they, as Muslims, shall preserve some of the best aspects of American culture.

What the Muslims of America want today is really no different than what the Pilgrims wanted: a better life, a new identity, a society where they can live their beliefs and contribute to the overall good. The only “secret” agenda American Muslims may have is to improve the public image of Muslims.

My hope is that thoughtful Americans are willing to open their minds and learn about Islam and Islam in America. American Muslims combine the best of Islamic values and culture with America’s respect for individualism and open society. The result is a racially diverse group of people, who are committed to certain core beliefs, living to improve the community in which they live.

In college I represented Muslim students on the college chaplaincy’s multi-faith council, which worked with the Dean of Religious Life, Victor Kazanjian, to instill spirituality in the college community. My college had done something quite brave and progressive in eliminating a single-faith chaplaincy in favor of a chaplaincy that represented the religions students on campus practiced. Victor often told us that multi-faith was about moving beyond tolerance of other faiths to understanding other faiths. Though difficult to open up and freely talk about religion at first, such a dialogue is rewarding. I was fascinated by the stories of other traditions, like the miracle of oil for the candles in the Jewish tradition, remembered during Hanukkah.

One of the stories Victor told us really struck me. In a village with many wells, small groups of people would gather around each well and drink only from the well they sat around. Though no one really talked about it, each group thought the water from their well was the most special. One day, a diver swam through the depths of one of these wells because he wanted to know what was at the bottom. He swam for a very long time because the well was quite deep. When he finally reached the bottom, he found, to his surprise, that all the wells were drawing from the same, large source of water at the bottom of all the wells. By going deep into one well, the diver found this out. This story holds a potent theme for all Americans as today we often are expected to choose a system of beliefs and values to the exclusion of all others. Yet being an American means that when we subscribe to one, we don’t have to disregard the others.