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Muslims in North America: Noble Neighbors or Suspicious Strangers: What can Muslim individuals and organizations do to better establish themselves as a positive presence in society?
By Maha ElGenaidi, ING President
Lecture delivered at the ISNA Convention 2005 Plenary Session Sunday, September 4, 2005: 4:30pm – 6:00pm
Speakers: Maha ElGenaidi, Dr. Scott Alexander, Salam Al-Maryati
Bism Allah ar-rahman ar-raheem. (In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful). Salam alaykum (Peace be upon) everyone, and thank you for being here.
Today there exists a combination of factors that are potentially threatening to the security of Muslims in America, as I am sure most of you are aware. In the interest of time, I am only going to bring up four of these.
The first is that the vast majority of Americans continue to hold stereotypes and negative perceptions about Islam and Muslims, to the extent that the “good” Muslim is viewed as an exception to the rule.
A recent poll by CAIR for example in Dec 2004, showed that 96% of Americans have no to somewhat knowledge of Islam and that 1 of 2 Americans believe that Islam oppresses women.
A Cornell University poll late last year showed that nearly 1 of 2 Americans believe our civil liberties should be curtailed; 1 of 3 Americans believe our mosques should be infiltrated; another 1 of 3 believe Muslims should register with the FBI; and another 1 of 3 believe that racial profiling is justified in the war against terror.
So, clearly we have an image problem.
The second problem we face is that those stereotypes are being constantly reinforced though media coverage of conflicts involving Muslims, conflicts that are later interpreted in books and magazines as being rooted in Islam, further adding to existing stereotypes.
The third problem facing Muslims today is the growth of extremely powerful lobbies and organizations, which have support from large segments of the US population, that are working against Islam and Muslim participation in the public square.
Recently, I had a live experience of listening to a speaker representing one of these groups, who spoke for an entire hour on the inevitable clash between Islam and the rest of civilization, and ways to mitigate the threat here in America. Fortunately, they gave me an opportunity to address him publicly after he was done, but it was one of the most challenging experiences I’ve faced, not because of the issues he raised, which were easily addressed, but due to the level of hostility expressed by the audience after he spoke. If people are listening to speakers like him, then I can understand how they will grow to hate Muslims.
The fourth problem comes from within Muslim communities around the world that continue to produce terrorists that commit violence in the name of Islam. These groups or individuals not only deface the teachings of Islam, but also blacken the name of the entire Muslim community.
The confluence of these and other forces creates an extremely precarious situation for Muslims in the US. In the event of another terror attack, the good will that was exhibited by the majority of people after 9/11 will not be repeated the second time around: American Muslims may face serious threats to their lives, property and safety in the immediate aftermath, and ongoing problems at work, in schools, and especially for women in hijab in the days and weeks afterwards. Our situation in the US is therefore dangerously lacking in stability; subject to chance and unpredictable events, such as terror attacks, and subjected to unwarranted, uncertain and unproved speculations about our religion and people.
The good news is that, personally I believe we still have a chance to turn the situation completely around and take advantage of the numerous opportunities and the general goodwill and open-mindedness of the American people – but only if we are able to work together as a community, and if every individual Muslim does his or her part.
So, how do we change our condition? What can Muslim individuals and organizations do to better establish themselves as a positive presence in the US given our situation?
To borrow from Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: I propose the following Three Habits of Muslims Who Are Going To Establish our Positive Presence in US Society:
They are people who:
1. Exemplify excellent character, as found in the example of the Prophet (P).
2. Work in cooperation with other Muslims, even with those they dislike or disagree with.
3. Reach out to Americans of other faiths with humility and sincerity, without the intention of personal gain or interest, but for the good of the people they’re reaching out to.
I am going to touch on all three areas, although my expertise is really in the third. While the first two are the realm of scholars, as an activist, one must also be concerned about the first two.
1. Exemplifying excellent character
Islam as our guide informs us that we can only change our condition when we change ourselves. In the Qur’an, Chapter 13, Ar-Ra’d, verse 11 states: “Certainly God never changes the condition of a people unless they themselves change what is in themselves.”
According to Abu-Hurraira, the Prophet Muhammad (P) said, “I have been sent only for the purpose of perfecting good morals” (Al-Muwatta).
The Day of Judgment in the Qur’an is described as a day on which neither wealth nor children shall be of any benefit to anyone, except one who comes to God with a sound heart. Imam Al-Ghazali’s description of “the godly man” is as follows:
“The godly man is wise, courageous and temperate in the noblest sense of the words, and in the highest degree. He engages in worship, prayers, fasting, alms-giving, and similar acts, but his duties to God do not exclude his duties to family, relatives, friends, neighbors, and society as a whole. He must earn his livelihood by strictly honest means. He must cultivate the best manners for all occasions, namely, he should know how to carry himself best at the table, in society, while traveling, and at the gathering of godly people and avoid causing the slightest pain to his fellowmen on any account. The Prophet should be his ideal and his inspiration all through his life. Lastly, his duty is not only to reform and perfect all the aspects of his life but to reform his fellowmen as well. And the motive force behind a perfect life is nothing other than the love and fear of God.”
From this description, moral character is not simply a goal within the life of a Muslim, but the end goal of the Islamic faith itself.
So, if you are a Muslim activist or just an ordinary Muslim who wants to effectively change perceptions of Islam and positively impact the community around them, it is necessary that you start with the condition of your heart.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf writes in his book, Purification of the Heart the following:
“The soundest of hearts was the heart of the Messenger of God, peace and prayers be upon him, who through his purity and singularity of intention transformed the world. His teaching remains, and the challenge is for each of us to take it and with it transform our hearts and thereby the very world in which we now reside.”
Today there are many new opportunities for growth and change. Some of the many excellent programs available include:
– Zaytuna Institute program called “Agenda to Change Our Condition,” with Sh. Hamza and Imam Zaid.
– Nawawi Foundation offers ongoing classes in Chicago under the direction of Dr. Umar Faruq Abdullah
– ALIM programs in Michigan, under Dr. Sherman Jackson
– Shaykh Naeem in Tucson, A
rizona also offers classes.
In order to change perceptions about Islam and Muslims, we need to ourselves become better Muslims. If one is already an activist, this is critical to one’s ongoing inspiration and success.
2. Working in cooperation with other Muslims
As Muslims, our duty towards each other is to advice and help each other; advising each other sincerely when wrong, and working to help each other when doing good, without competing for recognition or abandoning each other out of fear, over differences, competition, or arrogance.
According to Imam al-Ghazzali (R) there are eight duties of brother/sisterhood in Islam:
1. “Two brothers are likened to a pair of hands, one of which washes the other.” That means the two are like one person.
2. The second duty is to render personal aid in the satisfaction of needs, attending to them without waiting to be asked, and giving them priority over personal needs.
3. The third duty concerns the tongue, which should be silent, and at other times speak out.
4. The fourth duty is to use the tongue to speak out to express affection for his brother. Muhammad (S) said, “If one of you loves his brother, let him know.”
5. The fifth duty is forgiveness of mistakes and failings.
6. The sixth duty is to pray for one’s brother, during his life and after his death.
7. The seventh duty is loyalty and sincerity.
8. The eighth duty is relief from discomfort and inconvenience.
So, as you work to reach out to Americans of other faiths, make sure that you fulfill your equally important obligation to work in brother/sisterhood with other Muslims in your community, even those you may dislike or disagree with.
3. Reaching out to Americans of other faiths
As the president of ING, which provides education about Islam and Muslims in public institutions, I have extended experience in this area. About 60% of our work is in schools, where we deliver five different presentations that supplement education about Islam in the context of world history and social studies. Presentation titles include: Orientation on Islam, Islamic Contributions to Civilization, Roots of Islam in America, Women in Islam, etc.
The remaining 40% of our work is in public institutions, such as law enforcement agencies, corporations, and hospitals, where we provide cultural competency training that includes a basic orientation on Islam and Muslims, as well as religious accommodations and tips for improved interaction with American Muslims.
Through this work for the past 13 years we have been successful in changing perceptions and improving the quality of life for Muslims. A key component of our program is to provide excellent training to our speakers, who are tested and certified every two years. If you are interested in becoming a speaker for any one of our affiliated speakers bureaus in 12 states & Canada, or opening up a speakers bureau in your town, or interested only in our presentations, please contact us for more information.
If you are unable or don’t want to work through any particular organization, you can still affect change as an individual. According to the CAIR poll cited earlier, it is clear that “personal relationships and interaction with Muslims are major drivers of positive attitudes.” So, take advantage of every opportunity you have when interacting with people of other faiths to project a positive image of Islam.
General tips for interacting in a positive manner:
– Engage people around you, simply by being aware that they have needs and wants as much as you; this awareness results in courteous behavior that we are enjoined to have anyway.
– Be nice to people. Smile as much as you can. It brightens up the other person’s mood, and changes their perception of Muslims as being stern and serious.
– Be helpful to others and generous in that help.
– Assume the best of intentions of people even if they appear to do you harm. People are often only doing the best they can or influenced by their perception, which you have the ability to change.
– Return good for bad if it occurs. If someone hurts you, return it with kindness or at the very least, make dua for him/her and yourself.
– Reach out to your neighbors, co-workers, and others you interact with regularly.
Tips for specific situations:
– While shopping: greet people around you, be patient in lines without cutting in, and thank shop clerks.
– While eating in a restaurant: be courteous to waiters – they’re not your maids; leave a good tip, leave the table as clean and tidy as possible, don’t cheat on salad bars, and control your kids.
– While driving: obey rules, be courteous, and keep your car clean.
– While traveling: engage other people around you; if you’re not in the mood, read a good book and hopefully someone will begin the conversation with you about the book you’re reading. Tip baggage handlers and shuttle drivers; make sure your kids behave well, leave hotel rooms clean, and don’t take anything that doesn’t belong to you.
In your child’s school:
– Make sure you child is well groomed and dressed neatly.
– Help your child to be an excellent student.
– Encourage your child become involved in extra-curricular activity.
– Attend your child’s sports and performances in which s/he is participating.
– Become a volunteer in your child’s classroom.
– When assigned a job, be on time, organized, and do the job well.
– Participate in field trips.
– Contribute to the PTA, bake sales, and other school activities.
– Be friendly, polite, and appreciative of teachers and administrators.
– Minimize conflicts, as long as your child’s rights are maintained.
– Take advantage of holidays to do a presentation on Islam and bring in food or activities the children will enjoy. For ideas on activities, refer to ING’s K-6th kit [which is available online at: https://ing.org/speakers/finalsubpage.asp?num=35&pagenum=106]
Our neighbors have rights on us, per Surat An-Nisa, verse 36, “And serve God, and ascribe nothing as partner unto Him. Show kindness to parents, and unto near kindred, and the orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbor who is of kin and the neighbor who is not of kin, ….”
– Show kindness to your neighbors
– Offer friendly greetings
– Cook food or take over fruits or sweets
– Take candies or desserts on theirs and our holidays
– Offer to watch their house when they go on vacation
– Offer to collect their mail and newspapers while they’re away
– Maintain your house and yard well, inside and outside
– Avoid activities that might annoy your neighbors, i.e.. Loud noise, children misbehaving or harming property
– For apt. Inhabitants, special care should be taken to abide by the rules of the complex, and to control children’s behavior
– Be ready to help, even before they ask
Your opportunities are endless to do good in this world, and are only limited by your imagination.
Always remember, YOU are an ambassador of Islam wherever you go and whatever you do. The Messenger of Islam is as important as the Message of Islam.
Thank you for being here.