By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This speech was delivered at the American Academy of Religion conference in San Diego on Monday, November 25th, 2019.

I. Context

Good morning. The title of my presentation this morning is decolonizing Interreligious education by using the example of programs by the Islamic Networks Group, also known as ING. I’ll begin first by addressing the context of their work before I move into their programs.

Poll after poll shows the continuing negative perceptions of Muslims by Western publics. A 2017 Pew poll, for instance, shows that 41% of Americans believe that Muslims are more prone to violence than adherents of other religions; another Pew poll that asked respondents to rate how “coldly” or “warmly” they viewed members of various religious groups on a scale from 0 (“coldest”) to 100 (“warmest”) showed respondents regarding Muslims most coldly of all religious groups at 48, while atheists were rated at 50, Hindus and Buddhists at 58 and 60 respectively. Not surprisingly, Catholics and Jews got the warmest ratings, receiving 66 and 67 respectively.

Another 2017 poll by Northwestern University reinforces the Pew temperature poll, showing that Americans ranked Muslims and then Arabs (often assumed to be Muslim) as lowest of all religious and racial groups on a scale of how “evolved” they were.

How did Muslims, who boast a remarkable history of Islamic civilization that spanned at least six centuries, who assimilated the scientific knowledge of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Persians, Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, and Phoenicians, who advanced the fields of mathematics, chemistry, biology, medicine and astronomy, who flourished in cultural development in literature, poetry, language, philosophy, arts and architecture creating masterpieces like Alhambra, Taj Mahal, and the Dome of the Rock, come to have such a poor image around the world today?

Muslims lost out to colonialism and its more recent neo-colonialism reincarnation that produces cheap labor for Europe, and keeps oil flowing to the West by supporting North African and Middle Eastern dictatorships and monarchies and by Western policies that have kept these nations from economically developing.

An equally destructive force is Islamophobia. The term “Islamophobia” came into wide currency through a report titled Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All, which was published in November 1997 by a commission sponsored by the Runnymede Trust in Great Britain.  That Runnymede report then defined Islamophobia as “An outlook or world-view involving an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims, which results in practices of exclusion and discrimination.” 

In exploring the Islamophobic view of Islam, Runnymede listed the following frames through which Islam is projected onto western publics, frames that were not much different from the way Islam was framed in the colonial period:

  • Islam is seen as a monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to change.
  • It is seen as separate and “other.” It does not have values in common with other cultures, is not affected by them, and does not influence them.
  • It is seen as inferior to the West and as barbaric, irrational, primitive, and sexist.
  • It is seen as violent, aggressive, threatening, supportive of terrorism, and engaged in a clash of civilizations.
  • It is seen as a political ideology, used for political or military advantage.

None of this framing of Islam is new. These narratives about Islam have been integrated into public school education for centuries, and have been further reinforced in popular culture by both the news and entertainment media, and more recently in the last few decades by a well-funded Islamophobic industry that produces and disseminates literature and campaigns against Muslims, thereby creating a culture that has led to broad discriminatory practices towards Muslims where anti-Muslim hostility is seen as natural and normal.

At ING, we are primarily focused on complicating the way that religion is framed. For this paper, I am focusing only on Islam in American education and popular culture, both of which generate stereotypes and misperceptions of both the religion and its adherents.

We believe, with the support of social science, that since these stereotypes are learned, not inherent either to the group that is being stereotyped or in the person doing the stereotyping, these stereotypes can be unlearned, and replaced by more realistic perceptions. That is the aim of ING’s work.

II. ING’s response

Education in the context of religious and ethnic pluralism is the task that Islamic Networks Group (ING) took up from its founding in 1993, working to advance peacemaking among all Americans and to prevent all forms of religion-, ethnic-, and race-based bigotry, discrimination, and hate crimes.

Our approach is based on the contact hypothesis, a well-established principle of social science according to which personal encounter with members of a marginalized group is the most effective way to dispel prejudice against the group.

This principle was recently confirmed by a study by UC Berkeley and Stanford researchers showing that a 10-minute non-confrontational conversation sufficed to change attitudes toward a stereotyped group and that this effect remained to affect voting behavior as much as three months later.

More recently, in 2019, a study by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding that measured the level of public endorsement of five negative stereotypes associated with Muslims in America found that, while knowing a Muslim personally helps improve perceptions about them, an even stronger predictor of positive perceptions is knowing something about Islam.

This confirms what we’ve also found in our work. Engaging as a Muslim with Americans of other faiths may lead our audiences to believe that you’re a great person but it doesn’t necessarily lead them to think better of your religion, and this is the reason why educating the public about a stereotyped religion like Islam is valuable and important in order to translate a one-time encounter to changed attitudes toward both Islam and Muslims in general.

Now, does this bottom-up, one person at a time approach work to dismantle institutional racism? Partly yes, by chipping away at reinforcement of existing Islamophobic perceptions, and by the production of new more positive perceptions in a situation where people are more emotionally connected to, and enlightened about, a population that is maligned. But countering Islamophobic attitude also depends on the content of our message and its delivery.

ING’s process of education involves both education and engagement and rests on an understanding of the relationship between cultural values and beliefs and how the two shape attitudes and lead to certain behaviors; this process can be likened to the various layers of an iceberg. At the bottom layer are American cultural values that the vast majority of Americans subscribe to, such as the belief in a democratic system of government, gender equality, and freedom of religion, while behavior is the visible tip of the iceberg.

If Americans holding these values believe Islam, for example, to be antithetical to them, then it’s easy to understand why polls show that majorities (54%) of Americans support a Muslim Ban or hold (56%) that Muslim values have little in common with American values.

ING focuses on changing those beliefs, particularly taking into account the diversity that is found among Americans and Muslims. That change of belief improves attitudes, which in turn improves behavior. This dual process of education and engagement is effective not only for Muslims but also for other groups that are targets of bigotry, and this is why we work alongside other groups.

ING’s initial program was the Islamic Speakers Bureau (ISB), which offers presentations on various topics related to Muslims and Islam delivered by trained *Muslim American speakers* using content developed in cooperation with recognized academic scholars to *supplement* existing education about Islam in the context of social studies content standards in all fifty states.

Such supplementation is necessary because existing education on this topic in world history and social studies is often misleading, incorrect, and lacking in depth and context, and, in particular, still portrays the *Muslim world* as essentially monolithic, failing to show the diversity of Islam and Muslims, their contributions to civilization in history and the present, and the many currents of change in Muslim societies today.

Using a live Muslim American presenter not only gives life to the subject matter but also makes it real, human, and credible.  The face-to-face engagement with someone from a marginalized group is irreplaceable in its impact in improving perceptions about that group.

But we also emphasize content that complicates the study of Islam in two main ways:

  • By focusing on lived Islam through Muslims and the spectrum of views that Muslims have on every issue, and
  • By addressing the topic in the context of what is being studied in social studies, world history, adult study programs, cultural diversity programming rather than in the context of victimization or national security. Our speakers would never go in front of an audience for example to respond to questions about Islam or Muslims without first exposing that audience to a presentation that frames the subject in a more neutral matter.

Our topics in the Islamic Speakers Bureau include:

  • “Getting to Know American Muslims and Their Faith,” with the focus on Muslim history, profiles of Muslims, and how Islam lives in the context of religious pluralism.
  • “Muslim Women Beyond the Stereotypes,” begins by looking at the status of Muslim women in 50+ Muslim majority countries and how their rights vary according to their location and several other factors that determine their education level, income and pay, and political involvement, where in some countries women have just won the right to vote and in others have become presidents and prime ministers.
  • “History of Muslims in the U.S.,” a little-known story that goes back to the presence of enslaved African Muslims in the 17th and later centuries sharing profiles of who Muslims were in all periods of immigration in US history.
  • “Muslim Contributions to Civilization,” about the many contributions of Muslims in varied fields, particularly in the so-called Golden Age of Islam in the Middle Ages, when Muslims contributed not only to math and science but also to culture, language, and the arts.

Around 30% of ISB’s presentations are to middle and high schools; other ISB audiences include colleges and universities, houses of worship, Rotary and other service clubs, and other community organizations.

The ISB also provides cultural diversity seminars on dealing sensitively and appropriately with Muslim individuals and communities that are *specially tailored* for professional audiences such as police officers, school principals and educators, doctors and nurses, corporate managers and employees, lawyers and judges, and others.  We don’t do information dumps, but rather tailor information based on what they will actually use in their day to day professional interactions. Such targeted training sticks much better than a simple accumulation of information.  Our trainings have been so successful that they have led to affirmations like a grant from the State of CA to do police training for 20% of their departments.

These seminars also have a direct impact on Muslims’ quality of life by reducing discrimination, dispelling stereotypes, and encouraging professionals to view Muslims as Americans like themselves.

We also make available free of charge to educators the content of ISB presentations, together with lesson plans, suggested questions and activities, and links to relevant videos of live presenters; these curricula have been downloaded by hundreds of teachers in 48 states and three Canadian provinces.

And we’ve compiled answers to over 200 questions about Islam and Muslims that shows up first if you google search answers to questions about Islam.  Our website has a million and half visits each year mostly to these pages.

What matters most to our present discussion, of course, is the ISB’s effectiveness in dispelling stereotypical narratives about Muslims and Islam. Surveys of audience attitudes toward Muslims and Islam conducted before and after ING school presentations show that after an ISB presentation:

  • The frequency of Islamophobic responses to our survey questions falls by nearly 100%.
  • The percentage of those believing that Muslims are prone to violence falls by 50%.
  • The percentage of those believing that American Muslims are insular and foreign falls by almost 75%.
  • The percentage of those believing that Muslims are intolerant of other religions falls by over 33%.
  • The percentage of those believing that American Muslims are “Islamists” hostile to the United States falls by 50%.
  • The percentage of those believing that Muslims oppress women falls by 75%.
  • The percentage of those believing that American Muslims are disadvantaged and in menial occupations falls by almost 75%.

As we continued our work of education about and engagement with Muslims after 9/11, we came to the understanding that the more Americans understand their own religions and their diversity, the more they will be able to understand Islam and its diversity. Out of this understanding was born ING’s Interfaith Speakers Bureau (IFSB) that promotes greater religious literacy in order to increase Islamic literacy.

The IFSB program brings panels of trained representatives of five major world religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism—to give a brief introduction to their religions and then to discuss a topic relating to religion in the contemporary world.  Two of the most popular IFSB topics are “Living the Faith,” about how adherents of different religions live out their faith in the busyness of contemporary life, and “Shared Values,” about the common ethical principles that different religious traditions proclaim. Other topics include “Religion and Environment,” on how religions can contribute to current environmental concerns; “Women and Religion,” on how religions have both promoted and limited the rights and power of women; “Religion and Pluralism,” on how adherents of a religion can respect the differing beliefs and practices of other religions while affirming and following their own; “Religion and Extremism,” showing that fundamentalism and extremism pose challenges within all religious traditions; and a number of other topics we do not have time to discuss here.

Except for a question on overall panel quality (rated “excellent” or “good” by 95% of respondents), IFSB audience evaluations consist of open-text narrative questions and hence cannot be quantified as ISB surveys can; nonetheless, some conclusions can be drawn from audience responses.

Among the most common reactions expressed are surprise and pleasure at seeing people of differing religious commitments and beliefs coming together as friends; many respondents clearly expect conflict and argument. Another point often made concerns a new understanding of the commonalities among different religious traditions that dispels the “alienness” of traditions other than their own.

Many respondents express gratitude for having learned something about religions of which they knew little or nothing, often accompanied by admission that the panel has changed their views concerning a particular tradition—most often Islam, but sometimes also Judaism or Buddhism.

For most of its history, ING has focused on religion-based bigotry. Since the 2015-2016 presidential cycle and watching in real time the immediate impact of what happens when presidential candidates recklessly speak disparagingly about marginalized groups, ING has responded by creating the Intercultural Speakers Bureau that anchors Islamophobia, which is anti-Muslim racism, in other forms of bigotry, particularly the anti-Black and anti-Latinx racism that are so deeply rooted in US culture.

The ICSB provides panels of trained speakers of diverse ethnicities and religions who educate about the history of the construction of knowledge about non-whites under colonialism, the process of racialization and the hierarchy of races that developed from it, and the way that these ideas became truths that are embedded in culture, and in turn created systems that lead to non-whites being racially profiled regardless of their education or economic status.

The panels address not only Orientalism but also anti-Semitism, and anti-Black, anti-Latino, and Anti-Native American bigotry and connect all of these to their roots in white and Christian supremacy—terms I wouldn’t use outside of an academic setting but that’s essentially what we’re addressing in these new panels.

The panels conclude with calls to action, asking audience members to commit themselves both to confront and overcome their own unconscious biases and to join anti-racist actions and organizations in their communities to begin to dismantle institutional racism—an effort that begins with awareness of the problems.

In conclusion, ING’s varied programs, the Islamic Speakers Bureau, the Interfaith Speakers Bureau and the Intercultural Speakers Bureau combined aim at decolonizing public attitudes and dismantling racist hierarchies by empowering people targeted by racism and bigotry to speak out and engage Americans of diverse identities—including white Christians—with education about, and face-to-face encounter with members of marginalized groups. This decolonization and deracialization of public attitudes through education is clearly urgent in today’s America and today’s world.

Over the past 27 years, ING has delivered around 25,000 presentations face-to-face in the San Francisco Bay area alone to a total audience of more than a million people and has reached an audience of millions more through a nationwide network of affiliated and partner organizations and social media campaigns. We hope to do much more of this programming in the coming years.  Thank you and I look forward to your questions and our discussion.

Maha Elgenaidi is the founder and Executive Director of Islamic Networks Group (www.ing.org), a peace-building organization providing face-to-face education and engagement opportunities that foster understanding of Muslims and other misunderstood groups to promote harmony among all people. Maha received an M.A. in religious studies from Stanford University and B.A in political science and economics from the American University in Cairo. She has taught classes on Islam in the modern world at Santa Clara University, Stanford University, and the University of California at Santa Cruz, and has been recognized with numerous awards, including the “Civil Rights Leadership Award” from the California Association of Human Relations Organizations, the “Citizen of the Year Award” from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, and the “Dorothy Irene Height Community Award” from the Silicon Valley Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A former Santa Clara County Human Relations Commissioner for 6 years, Maha is currently an advisor to the California Commission on Police Officers Standards and Training on Hate Crimes and Cultural Diversity.