The last year or two has been a bumpy road for American Muslims. From the Loews advertising fiasco with TLC’s “All-American Muslim,” to the never-ending Murfreesboro mosque protests, to the NYPD surveillance program, it has become apparent that as one controversy cools down, another comes up along the way.
Right now, we’re in one of those troughs, one of those lulls in action, with many American Muslims awaiting the inevitable controversy to erupt. Why the sense of inevitability? Because the reaction of the American Muslim community to these slew of incidents, while effective in many short-term aspects, lacks the necessary sustainability to actually cure some of the ailments that result from radical violence perpetrated in the name of Islam and the increasing fear of everyday Muslims in America propagated by certain niche groups.
Community organizing, petitioning and interfaith dialogue has their limits. Most of these types of activities draw only the most passionate (on both sides of the issue) and fail to properly target those in the middle, who are just as useful in dispelling negative stereotypes about Muslims.
Naturally, as one can imagine, there’s no reason why these incidents ought to be inevitable. And though it may come as a surprise, Independence Day is one of the best ways to change negative perceptions of Islam. The beautiful thing is that you can do it without even discussing religion. All you have to do is be social and enjoy the day. Host a barbecue, attend a neighborhood party, or just go to the fireworks in your town. And make an effort to branch out — don’t limit your guest list to only Muslims. Invite other friends, neighbors and coworkers.
Could doing something so simple actually make a difference? Absolutely. It normalizes Islam. Days like the Fourth of July present an opportunity to transcend hatever differences exist among people and allow us all to share a common love for our country. For onlookers, watching American Muslims celebrate America reaffirms what we often wish to convey — that we Muslims are not a whole lot different than most other Americans.
But, instead of simply telling people that this is true, we can actually show them and allow them to reach that conclusion on their own. Interacting with our fellow Americans, even within the paradigm of basic social engagement, changes Islam from an abstract ideology to a concrete human relationship. Your friend, neighbor, or coworker will now use you as their point of reference when it comes to Islam. When they hear something negative about Islam, they will compare what they hear to what they know about you and make a judgment about the credibility of the claim being made.
The stronger the relationship they have with you, the more likely it is that they trust their assessment of you, rather than someone else’s. Americans don’t need a lecture on Islam; they need an experience with a Muslim. And, the more experiences they have with normal, everyday, peace-loving American Muslims, the more they will learn about what it truly means to be Muslim in America. So, this Fourth of July while you’re stuffing your face with a halal burger, remember that you have the ability to put a face on Islam and change the perception other Americans have of what it means to be Muslim, without sacrificing a bite.