King’s Hearing Illustrates Importance of Education and Outreach; 3/11/11

03/11/11 – Congressman King’s hearings on radicalization in the American Muslim community, which commenced yesterday have been the subject of much discussion and anxiety for the past month as those both for and against the hearings debate their focus and purpose. Many view this as merely another page in the playbook of the persistent demonization of American Muslims that has peaked in the past few months. Despite the focus on radicalization, on the first day of a series of planned hearings, one of the themes voiced by many of the congress people and officials testifying was an acknowledgement of American Muslims’ contributions to the United States and their place as an integral part of our community as our neighbors, teachers, members of the armed services, and educated professionals.

This positive perception of American Muslims did not occur overnight but is the result of the efforts of Muslim individuals and communities nationwide who have established the relationships and interaction that many of the lawmakers referred to in their districts, and contribute to society not only in their professional roles as doctors, lawyers, engineers, and others, but through consistent service in their local community through outreach programs, and by volunteering in soup kitchens, local health clinics, or feeding the homeless.

A few lawmakers and speakers also voiced the importance of a better understanding of Islam and its commonalities with other religious traditions. Indeed such education is much needed in the environment today where Islamophobia is at an all time high, and recent events such as a hate rally in Orange County and the shootings of two Sikh men in Northern California illustrate the dangerous impact of the persistent demonization of Islam and Muslims. For many Americans, Islam is still strange and at times an exclusively foreign religion. In recent incidences of anti-Muslim hate crimes or of generally Islamophobic rhetoric, a common theme emerges: Muslims do not belong here and are not part of the fabric of America.

Recent polls bear out the widespread nature of these negative perceptions. According to a 2010 Gallup poll, of the faiths Americans were asked about, Islam elicits the most negative views although nearly two-thirds of Americans say they have little or no knowledge of the faith. Americans are more than twice as likely to express negative feelings about Muslims as they are about other faiths, with 52% of Americans admitting to feeling at least some prejudice toward Muslims. Notably, those who report they do not know a Muslim are twice as likely to express prejudice. This finding is confirmed by a 2010 poll by Hart Research which shows that those who personally know a Muslim are less likely to oppose the building of a mosque in their neighborhood, or to assume that someone dressed in Muslim garb is a terrorist.

This is why ING’s work has never been more important in challenging stereotypes and promoting understanding while building mutual respect. In impact evaluations of our work, and pre and post surveys of more than 5000 people, we learned that after an ING presentation 60% of the audience rated themselves as very familiar with Islam as opposed to 20% before an ING presentation. For the last 15 years, ING has devoted itself to creating content relating to American Muslims, building the capacity of Muslim speakers and delivering thousands of presentations, training seminars and interfaith panels a year in several regions around the country. ING’s affiliates across the country are bringing its educational programs to their local communities based on ING’s successful model.

ING Executive Director, Maha Elgenaidi presenting to a law enforcement group

Many speakers at the King hearings including Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca also testified about the cooperation of American Muslims in fighting terror and engaging with law enforcement, an area where ING also has a long trek record. Since 1995 ING has engaged with law enforcement agencies, both to educate them about American Muslims, and to facilitate conversations between law enforcement and the community. ING has provided training for hundreds of regional law enforcement agencies that have included police departments, FBI offices and DA offices, and has worked with the Department of Justice in collaboration with the Sikh community to conduct trainings in multiple agencies. See History of ING’s Work with Law Enforcement.

ING’s president has served as Co-Chair and Vice-Chair for four years of the Bay Area Hate Crimes Investigators Association which was a coalition of community groups and law enforcement agencies working together to combat hate crimes. She currently serves as an advisor to POST (the California Commission on Police Officers Standards and Training) on hate crimes and cultural diversity training, and has appeared in several POST training videos speaking about interaction with the American Muslim community. In 2007, ING awarded POST its 2007 Excellence in Cultural Diversity Education award at its annual fundraiser. The former police chief of San Jose sat on ING’s board until recently.

Additionally, ING’s work to promote pluralism and tolerance based on Islamic teachings and its vision of a society that respects all people is a strong counter against the radicalization, which is the focus of the King hearings. ING’s interfaith initiative it launched three years ago as the Interfaith Speakers Bureau is a groundbreaking program through which American Muslims provide an opportunity for audiences to learn about and dialogue with representatives of the five major world faiths with the belief that religious literacy and understanding benefits all of us.

More must be done to reach out, to play our part, and to communicate that Muslims are not separate from the American story, but have been part of that story from before America’s independence. In the wake of these hearings, American Muslim organizations should play their part to educate and inform, to tell their fellow Americans who Muslims are, and to make clear who Muslims are not. These hearings are an excellent chance to enter public conversations, to reach national audiences, and to make powerful and lasting contributions.