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By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director and Tim Brauhn, Communications Manager.
This opinion appeared at the ING blog.
Islamic Networks Group and its affiliates across the country don’t often engage with overtly political themes like the Trump administration’s repeated attempts to curtail entry into the United States.
But on a daily basis, our public speakers and local leaders directly engage with the kind of misconceptions about Islam and Muslims that makes bad policy like the travel ban and its iterations possible. A lack of interaction with Muslims leads to believing prevalent stereotypes about them. Negative stereotypes then transform into fear and result in support for discriminatory policy.
The cycle of ignorance becomes even more profound when the travel bans keep Muslim visitors and immigrants out while isolating Muslim Americans already here. Through our work at ING, we both confront this cycle of ignorance everyday. But we come to the issue from distinct backgrounds.
One of us (Maha) was raised in a secular Muslim household and dismissed religiously observant Muslims as self-deluded and beholden to ancient traditions. Over time though, strong relationships with such religious people caused a “reversion” of sorts. This led to a life that has been more deeply committed to the practice of Islam in the decades since, culminating in her role as an Executive Director of an organization that advocates for the free exercise of all religious and ethical traditions.
Tim was raised Catholic but lost touch with the Church when he moved away for college, instead preferring to study Catholicism as an academic discipline. Those studies highlighted the long history of anti-Catholic discrimination in the United States — discrimination which clearly mirrored modern-day Islamophobia. Baptists, Jews, Unitarians, Mormons, Quakers, and many others are no strangers to this experience, either. The targets have different names, but the fear and ignorance are the same.
The travel ban wouldn’t seem on its face to affect us directly, though a few of our local leaders’ families or friends do hail from the restricted countries. But as Americans, we are affected deeply by such anti-Muslim actions. These policies have a profound effect on the American ethos. We must defend our ideals if we truly believe that America is a beacon of hope, the house of liberty, and the refuge for the huddled masses. We can’t believe that and in good conscience ban people who subscribe to a certain religious belief system.
Americans look at policies like the travel ban and see justifications for their own fears. They see attempts to keep them safe by avoiding the unfamiliar. We know that experience with the unfamiliar is the best way to dispel negative stereotypes, so regardless of what travel bans come down the line, or what the Supreme Court decides, we’ll continue our work.
We’ll highlight the fact that Muslims who come to America tend to be quite good at being excellent people. We’ll look at the many immigrants to this country — Muslim and not — who have contributed in large and small ways to the strength and resiliency of the United States. We’ll point to the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom as a key determinant of our country’s success on the world stage; and to the fact that we opened our arms to the persecuted and, often, the persecutors too, and in doing so, crafted an incredibly diverse society dedicated to upholding our best values.
Finally, we know from our country’s history that restrictions on religion don’t work because our society eventually decides “we’re better than that.” The Pew Research Center actively tracks these changes in Americans’ feelings toward different religious groups and has found growing acceptance, though Muslims are still regarded “least-warmly” — only a few points below atheists, surprisingly.
It takes time. Baptists and Quakers came to be accepted by mainstream Christianity. Jews came to be seen as “white” like other European peoples. Catholics found their way to the highest office even with intense public suspicion of President Kennedy’s allegiance to the Pope. Buddhists and Hindus eventually found acceptance as religious minorities, albeit with a soup of negative stereotypes attached to them.
Our past shows us that one day, perhaps not too far hence, Muslims will be viewed as just another minority with the same issues as the rest of us: occasional car trouble, hospital bills, births and deaths, graduations and weddings, laughs and tears.
This won’t happen by itself. Muslims need to reach out to those of other faiths, or no faith, and vice versa. We all have to come to know our neighbors before the fences — ideological and otherwise — that divide us become insurmountable.
There’s still time.