Addressing Islamophobia, One Person at a Time

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This opinion originally appeared at iSLAMiCommentary.

“We need more than the law to combat what are often deep-seated prejudices and attitudes that are the root causes of discrimination… Face-to-face interaction, education, and inter-religious engagement are key to breaking the grip of Islamophobia in this country.” — Maha Elgenaidi, CEO of Islamic Networks Group (ING)

Islamophobia, defined as an irrational fear of Muslims and Islam, did not arise out of a vacuum. The media focus on terrorism by Muslims — even as a recent survey of law enforcement shows anti-government violent extremists to be a greater threat — is a potent source of that fear.

A multi-million dollar industry of anti-Muslim bigots — first detailed in the Center for American Progress report Fear, Inc. — fans the flames of prejudice and fear further when these bigots paint all Muslims as real or at least potential threats to America’s security and way of life.

Polls from last summer leave no doubt that anti-Muslim bigotry is very much alive and has, in fact, grown worse. A poll by Zogby Associates shows the percentage of Americans viewing Islam favorably dropped from 35% in 2010 to 27% in 2014. And Americans now view Muslims more “coldly” than any other religious group, including atheists, according to a Pew Research poll.

This goes along with findings that 42% of the American public approves of law enforcement profiling Muslims and Arabs (whom most Americans incorrectly assume are all Muslims), while only 34% are confident that an American Muslim could be trusted to work in an important government post.

The media’s overwhelming coverage of ISIS and ISIS-inspired acts of violence as being solely driven by Islam — including the succession of beheadings since last summer, the attack on Charlie Hebdo staff, and the shootings of Western tourists at a Tunisian museum and a Tunisian beach resort — has confirmed, for many, some ugly stereotypes about Muslims.

Back at home, there’s been an unprecedented spike in anti-Muslim sentiment and hate crimes in recent months, including the horrific murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, NC, vandalism and attacks against mosques nationwide, the confrontation of mosque attendees in Phoenix, AZ by about 250 mostly-armed protestors, and last week’s defacement of a Muslim family’s house in Iowa with hate speech.

Fourteen years after the September 11th tragedy, hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. continue at a rate five times higher than before September 11; they account for 13% of all religiously motivated hate crimes, second only to those committed against Jews. Such crimes leave all Muslims with feelings of fear and insecurity, as one can never know when this bigotry will turn violent as the Chapel Hill students tragically found out.

Even when Islamophobia does not prompt overt violence — it still leaves its mark, sometimes in ways more insidious and more lasting. Chief among these is the teasing and bullying that most Muslim students endure during their school years. A survey in California — generally one of the most liberal areas in the country — has found that 50 percent of Muslim students have experienced bullying. This is significantly higher than the one-quarter to one-third of students overall who report having been bullied, indicating that Muslim students are targeted because of their religion or ethnicity. Bullying causes more than temporary discomfort. According to a report by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, it has long-term effects on mental health and social functioning.

Equally insidious is the impact of workplace discrimination against Muslims and other civil rights violations that spring from anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamophobia. A 2013 study by researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University found that after hiring interviews only 2% of Muslim applicants received callbacks, as opposed to 17% of Christian applicants. Although Muslims account for 1% of the U.S. population (and in some states 2-3%), complaints by Muslims of religion-based discrimination received by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission amounted to 20% of all religion-based charges in 2012 (the latest year for which figures are available).

The EEOC reports: “The Commission continues to see an increase in charges involving religious discrimination against Muslims and alleging national origin discrimination against Muslims or those with a Middle Eastern background, and has filed nearly 90 lawsuits alleging religious and national origin discrimination involving the Muslim, Sikh, Arab, Middle Eastern and South Asian communities, many of which involved harassment.  The alleged harassment included taunts such as “Saddam Hussein,” “camel eater,” and “terrorist.””

While legal efforts by such organizations as the EEOC, the American Civil Liberties Union, and others are vital and necessary, they are by themselves insufficient to decrease anti-Muslim sentiment and discriminatory behavior towards Muslims.

We need more than the law to combat what are often deep-seated prejudices and attitudes that are the root causes of discrimination.

The African-American experience demonstrates this point: although laws and policies protecting civil rights have been on the books for 50 years, racism remains a potent force in this country.

Both common sense and a host of social scientific studies tell us that the best way to combat prejudice against a group is through positive personal interaction with members of the group. Equally obvious is the necessity of education. Islamophobic attitudes are usually grounded in ignorance or, worse, gross misinformation about Muslims and Islam, as can be seen, for instance, in the hysteria around the bogey-man of “Shariah law.”

A 2014 Zogby study showed that interaction with Muslims nearly doubles favorable attitudes toward them. My own experiences have shown that education, preferably by Muslims who can share their lived experiences of the faith, and inter-religious engagement decreases Islamophobic responses to attitudinal surveys by more than 50%.

The work of Islamic Networks Group (ING) that I founded in 1993, testifies to the impact of both these strategies on improving perceptions of Muslims and their faith. ING has supplemented education about Islam and Muslims in schools, colleges, churches, synagogues, community organizations, and other venues, and given cultural diversity training for police officers, healthcare professionals, educators, and corporate managers—initially in the San Francisco Bay area and now through a network of affiliates in nineteen states across the country. Our impact reports, based on attitudinal surveys administered before and after presentations, demonstrate the effectiveness even of a single one-hour face-to-face presentation in breaking down anti-Muslim prejudice. On specific issues — for example, the percentage believing that Muslims “view women as inferior” — drops by 83%. The percentage affirming that Islam promotes peace rises by 35%.

In its educational programs about Islam, we emphasize both Islam’s commonalities with other religions, particularly, of course, those in the Abrahamic tradition, and the long history — going back to the first European contact with the Americas and perhaps even earlier — of Muslims in the United States, thus dispelling the notion that Islam is something new and foreign to the U.S. Here too the impact reports show results: the percentage understanding the Muslims “have long been a part of the history of this country” rises by 74% and those seeing Muslims as “Americans like myself” rises by 41%.

Equally important to ING’s mission is our Interfaith Speakers Bureau (IFSB), in which representatives of five major world religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism) engage each other with the audience on topics such as “living one’s faith,” “shared values,” or “religion and environmental concerns.” We initiated the IFSB out of a realization that the public understanding of Islam had to rest on individuals’ understanding of their own religion and public acceptance of religious pluralism generally. Muslims will be safe only in an environment where adherents of all religions are safe.

The next generation of Muslims in America are confronting increasingly difficult questions concerning, for example, Islam and liberalism, freedom of expression, and separation of church and state. Our youth workshops are helping them gain confidence in their ability to respond to these questions and present their thoughts in the classroom.

Face-to-face interaction, education, and interreligious engagement are key to breaking the grip of Islamophobia in this country. One hour of personal presence can undo years of exposure to the anti-Muslim attitudes still pervasive in the media, and in society generally. We are happy to have done some pioneering work in this area, and are hoping that others join us in taking up the challenge.