Is There An Antidote For Anti-Muslim Rhetoric?

In the Name of God, the Kind, the Beautiful

The summer of 2010 has seen tremendous anti-Muslim rhetoric, fervor, and disinformation. By twisting the truth about Islam and Muslims, a relatively small number of anti-Muslim ideologues have managed to take over the discourse and create a truly hostile environment for American Muslims. This is being borne out in the numerous mosque fights that have sprung up across the country, with the grandest example being the non-controversy that became the controversial “Ground Zero Mosque,” or as comedian Jon Stewart likes to call it, the “Community Center of Death.”

The root cause of all this hostility is ignorance and misinformation. Americans are still woefully misinformed about Islam. According to a recent Pew Research Poll, 65% of Americans know either “some” or “not very much” about Islam. One in four Americans know “nothing at all.” This void in knowledge is fertile ground into which Islamophobes can plant their seeds of misinformation. Yet, I cannot blame my fellow non-Muslim Americans for this lack of knowledge about Islam. Many Americans know very little about even their own faiths.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the US Religious Knowledge Survey detailing Americans’ knowledge about religion. And it does not look pretty. According to the survey, more than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. About half of Protestants (53%) cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion a separate branch of Christianity. Roughly four-in-ten Jews (43%) do not recognize that Maimonides, one of the most venerated rabbis in history, was Jewish.

This puts Americans’ lack of knowledge about Islam in perspective. Nevertheless, ignorance is our real enemy in this struggle against the forces of hatred and division, and the more ignorance there is, the stronger the hand of those who seek to marginalize the American Muslim community. What can Muslims do about this? “Work harder,” is the inevitable answer. “Work harder at educating the American public about Islam.”

Yet, even that is becoming more and more difficult to do. People are being told not to trust what Muslims say because they are all practicing “taqiyya.” The recent declaration of Faisal Shahzad that when he took an oath of allegiance to the United States, he “did not mean it” does not help to dispel this falsehood. Moreover, there are moves to change American textbooks, which have been deemed by some to be too “pro-Muslim.” So, what are we to do?

More engagement, on both a personal and national level, needs to be undertaken. American Muslims all live somewhere, and that “somewhere” has neighbors. American Muslims need to know their neighbors on an intimate, personal level. Exchange gifts, go to block parties, coach softball teams, become Neighborhood Watch block captains – that is the best way to teach about Islam, by showing what “real live Islam” looks like. Yes, public service announcements highlighting the role of Muslim 9/11 first responders do help in a big way. Yes, more credible, honest Muslim spokespeople in the mainstream media help. But, local engagement is the key.

In addition, Muslims must enter into the field of the arts in droves: writing books, producing television shows, and making films. Muslims have already made great strides: the wonderful work of Unity Productions Foundation, Azhar Usman, Wajahat Ali, and G. Willow Wilson are excellent examples. I am also trying to contribute to this effort with my forthcoming book, Noble Brother, which is the story of the Prophet Muhammad told entirely in poetry. Each one of us has a talent, and we should try to use that talent to contribute to the American Muslim story.

Moreover, Muslims should start promoting themselves a little more on a local level. I was speaking to a Muslim producer of a local Chicago TV network news affiliate, and she told me that a great way to increase the number of positive stories about Muslims in the media is to self-promote. More of us should be the “local experts” on Islam and the American Muslim story and share this expertise with their local news media.

We should all have Press Kits ready for distribution. If we are doing something positive, such as running a marathon for a good cause or donating to a free clinic, we should send out a press release. Foment good relationships with local print and broadcast reporters. This is already being done all across the country, but we need more of it. We all know that American Muslims contribute positively to the country’s well being every single day; more of our neighbors should know about it as well.

This is not an easy task, not in the least. But, it is essential. It is not necessary that every non-Muslim American become experts at Islam; many are not even expert in their own faiths. But what is necessary is that we are all familiar enough with each other – our likes, our dislikes, our hopes, our dreams – that when we see images of pedophile priests or “Islamic” suicide bombers, we say to ourselves, “I know that is not the reality, because my neighbor is not like that. And I believe my neighbor more than I believe what’s on the TV.” And we will all the better for it.


3 thoughts on “Is There An Antidote For Anti-Muslim Rhetoric?

  1. Mr. Hassaballa,
    Hello, I am a Christian white female American. Just wanted to put that out there, so you know where I’m coming from. I stumbled upon your blog one day while I was surfing the net, trying to learn about Islam. I don’t know much about Muslims, but I have a dear friend at work who is of your faith. She is kind, loving and very devout in her faith. It’s sad that I’d known her for two years before she let it slip that she’s a Muslim. I’m sorry she felt like she had to hide it.

    Anyhow, I think you are right on target with your article. Muslims must step out of their houses and participate in life that’s going on around them. To learn about you (Muslims) and accept/embrace our differences and similarities, I need you to share your life with me. Don’t hide your fasting from me, or your prayer times, etc. Invite me to dinner. Stop by for coffee some morning.

    But when Muslims segregate themselves and refuse to even admit their faith, when they don’t speak out against Terrorism, you must understand where we’re coming from. You’re right, as a whole, American’s don’t know a whole lot about religions. Ignorance inspires fear.

    I think my biggest issue right now, is that I’d like to hear more Muslims speaking out against the Extremists, Terrorists, criminals, whatever you want to call them. Folks like you and my friend need to speak loudly and tell us you don’t support those people who kill and call themselves Muslim.

    Also, I think perhaps Christians are feeling like we have to “make way” for Muslims to not be offended by our religion. I’m not saying that Muslims are charging us with “offending” them, but everyone’s so afraid of being politically incorrect, that we’re making matters worse. In my opinion there’s nothing with saying “Merry Christmas” “Happy Hannukah” or “Happy Eid” to a stranger on the street. I mean no offense, just wishing happiness.

    Just wanted to share my thoughts and tell you I enjoy your writing. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Dear T Evans,

    As much as I appreciate Dr. Hassaballah’s comments, I also appreciate your comment. It says a lot that you took the trouble to write out very nicely your honest thoughts. And you make very valid points indeed. I am a Muslim, a scientist in training and I’ve been telling everyone who will listen to me how much I condemn in the strongest way possible the acts of all terrorists. All oppressors, no matter what idiology they highjack to suit their purpose. Actually this abuse of Islam by the likes of the Taliban etc has been so painful it has been difficult to talk about. But you are right, it is time to swallow the bile and get on with the job at hand. But trust me, we are trying, so very much.

  3. Wow, this post speaks so much of what I have been thinking recently. Thank you for putting up such a concise and clear post on a very relevant topic! Keep up the great work.

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