NEW YORK — When Americans think of a Muslim American, most probably envision a bearded man or veiled woman, speaking accented English and holding traditional, conservative views of the world.
Although the reality is much different - most of the nation's Muslims are American-born converts or second-generation immigrants, not particularly religious, and liberal - you'd be hard-pressed to learn this by watching most Muslim spokespeople in the media.
Most Muslim American institutions today, from local mosques to national advocacy groups, reflect an ultraconservative Muslim agenda not shared by most within their community, which at an estimated 6 million now equals the size of the American Jewish community.
The Washington-based Committee on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the most prominent Muslim American civil rights organization, spends much of its time and money defending the rights of female students to wear veils in public schools.
However, when confronted with the rabid misogynistic policies common in most mosques - such as limited access to main prayer halls or bans on women serving on mosque boards - CAIR makes no such efforts on behalf of Muslim women's rights.
Not only are Muslim organizations out of touch with their supposed constituency, they're far removed from the realities of American life.
Often this can reach the level of the absurd. For example, last month, the nation's biggest American Muslim group, the Islamic Society of North America, which represents a quarter of the nation's mosques, hosted the annual conference for the National Temperance and Prohibition Council, a Christian-based group working to ban the sale and manufacture of alcohol in the US.
The reluctance of the Muslim American leadership to deal honestly and directly with the important issues within their community is causing a major crisis in American Islam.
Today, most Muslim Americans are so disaffected by their existing institutions that they have dropped out of the community altogether.
A survey of Detroit mosquegoers and officials released last month by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding shows that half of those attending mosque are recent immigrants, many of whom intend to return to their homeland. When asked if they thought America is an immoral society, more than half said yes. Such views - certainly radical in the context of mainstream American culture - are probably a major reason less than 7 percent of American Muslims attend mosque regularly (compared with 38 percent of Americans who attend church weekly).
The dismally low level of attendance at US mosques is not something Muslim organizations like to discuss, especially when they're busy presenting their ideologically charged agendas as representative of the larger American Muslim community.
Studies confirm that the majority of Muslims living in the West don't share the fundamentalist agenda of their self-appointed leaders. Yet conservatives are still most likely to be called upon by the media and policymakers to represent the Muslim community because they fit a convenient stereotype of what a Muslim should look and act like. As a recent RAND Corporation study points out, "They present a better photo-op, so the media tend to choose them when they need a pictorial illustration for a story about American Muslims."
So Americans are often left with two extreme views on Islam - one promoted by Muslim ultraconservatives and the other, an equally dangerous one, represented by professional anti-Muslim bigots.
The challenge for the millions of Muslims excluded by these groups is that they don't have the financial and institutional backing enjoyed by the fundamentalist organizations, many of which are financed by rich donors from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
Most Muslim Americans are well assimilated into the mainstream of American life. And because there are few organized spiritual and cultural outlets for them, the moderate and progressive Muslim American majority is harder to find than the vocal conservative minority.
But there are definite signs that the silent majority is beginning to coalesce into a movement to reclaim its faith. Books calling for a progressive reinterpretation of Islam, such as Omid Safi's "Progressive Muslims," are being widely discussed by American Muslims, although you're unlikely to find them at mosque bookstores.
MuslimWakeup.com, a progressive online magazine I edit, now has a monthly readership surpassing 70,000 - more than any other publication specifically catering to North American Muslims.
Even some Muslim organizations are beginning to wake up. Recently, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a lobbying group connected with the largest mosque in Los Angeles, invited two progressive Muslim scholars to participate in their annual conference. That is an important step.
But American media and policymakers also need to step up to the plate to defeat Muslim extremism at home. Instead of encouraging the most conservative fringes within the Muslim American community, it's time to give voice to the moderate majority.
• Ahmed Nassef is cofounder and editor in chief of MuslimWakeUp.com.