Year in Review: Top Ten Good Muslim News Stories of 2015

Dhikr-of-AllahBy Altmuslim Editors

Sure, we could talk about the Paris attacks, Charlie Hebdo, Isis, San Bernardino, Donald Trump, Islamophobia, anti-Muslim rhetoric and other things that made 2015 a difficult year for Muslim news, but why not end 2015 and look to 2016 by focusing on the positive? Because a lot of good things happened in 2015, from charity initiatives to the recognition of Eid as a holiday in various school districts to Muslim heroes responding to terrorism and violence to Muslims taking center stage in Hollywood to a big step forward for women-friendly mosques. It was a year in which we took bad situations and drew something good out of it, as well as several bright lights in our community that shined. In a year when fear was threatening to take over the collective world narrative, hope and good fought back. And we’d always rather end on a positive note. So, in the fine tradition of Altmuslim, here are the top ten Good Muslim Stories of 2015 (in no particular order)! Read, reflect and be happy.  (See altmuslim’s “Top Ten” lists for 20142013201120102009200820072006200520042003, and 2002.)

1. Muslims Crowdfund for Black Churches, Water Initiatives and More

In a year when Muslims were the scapegoats for Donald Trump and much of the GOP, when terror attacks involving a few Muslims put an entire community of billions under the microscope, American Muslims fought to take the narrative back to one of hope and good by involving themselves in charity and crowdfunding initiatives. When more than 31,300 Detroit residents had their water turned off in January of 2013, Islamic Relief USA and the Michigan Muslim Community Council banded together to donate $100,000 to the Detroit Water Fund and Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, saying “it is important to us in our faith to help our neighbors. It is part of our faith to help our friends.” Later that month, in response to a string of black churches being destroyed by fires and in the days following the shooting of nine people inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, Faatimah Knight started the “Respond with Love” campaign, rallying people and three Muslim organizations to raise more than $100,000 to rebuild the churches. And, just last month a campaign organized by Dr. Faisal Qazi in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings — before it was even known that the shooters were Muslims — caught the attention of Muslims across the country. More than $200,000 was raised and donated to the victims’ families. Said Qazi, “My faith is the biggest inspiration for the work I do.”

2. The Year of the Muslim Hashtag

For too long, Muslim communities have let the media define their narratives, but in 2015, that all changed.  Muslims on social media, from multiple backgrounds and life experiences, took to Twitter to take on current events with hashtags that conveyed far more meaning than their somewhat few letters would indicate.  The #MuslimID hashtag took on 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump’s suggestion that there be a database of Muslims by showcasing the ID cards & badges of American Muslims serving in the military, government, and other forms of public service. The #IStandWithAhmed hashtag brought global attention (and support from Silicon Valley, Hollywood and the President) to the plight of Ahmed Mohamed, who was briefly detained by police who felt that his hacked clock posed a threat.  Within Muslim communities, hashtags like #BeingBlackAndMuslim sought to tell the stories of Muslims whose life experiences have been long ignored by larger Muslim audiences.  And, the #OurThreeWinners campaign turned the tragedy of the murder of three young American Muslims in North Carolina into a showcase of hope, philanthropy, and positivity.  These hashtags not only bring nuance to mainstream news stories (or just get mainstream news to pay attention), but they encapsulate a new way of engaging the public – with humanizing narratives, humorous defiance and a richness that the media has struggled with since the days of 9/11.

3. Recognition of Eid as an Official Holiday in Various School Districts

We no longer have to choose between our education and our faith! – tweet. March saw the culmination of a project years in the making – getting New York City to add Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Adha to the public school calendar. New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio announced that schools in the five boroughs would now be closed for the two major Muslim holidays, saying “We’re here today to make good on a promise to our Muslim brothers and sisters that a holiday of supreme importance to the Muslim community will be recognized in our school calendar so that children can honor the holiday without missing school.” Several months later, Montgomery County, Maryland also followed suit when the board of education voted 6-2 in support of a measure to schedule a professional work day for administrators and teachers on September 12, 2016 to coincide with Eid ul Adha. “It’s huge,” said Saqib Ali, a former state lawmaker who had been a leader of the effort. Without the change, “my daughters are not equal to all of their little playmates in the neighborhood, their Christian friends, their Jewish friends.” It was a beautiful example of religious pluralism in areas where a significant Muslim population rightly warranted the holiday designations.

4. Muslim Heroes Respond to Terrorism & Violence

You wouldn’t know this from what the media focuses on, but Muslims have not only been the primary victims of Islamist violence, but have been on the front lines in trying to discredit, marginalize, and physically fight against them.  Earlier this year, we saw both Muslim police officer Ahmed Merabet give his life to protect others, as well as Lassana Bathily save the lives of multiple Jewish customers (and subsequently earn French citizenship) at a kosher grocery store in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. And just last month, Muslims shielded Christian passengers from attack by al-Shabaab militants who stopped their bus in Kenya.  In between these two visible examples, you have had Muslim soldiers (Kurds, Iraqis, and others) on the front lines against ISIS and other related groups. Here at home, Muslims have responded to homegrown violence by raising over $200,000 for victims of the December San Bernadino shootings.  “It’s really all about helping your neighbors here,” explained Meraj Mohiuddin, a 38-year-old trauma anesthesiologist in Phoenix, Arizona who donated $15,000 to the project.  “What we can do as Muslims is be that much more graceful and better versions of ourselves.”  Finally, Muslims are responding directly to ISIS calls to join their fight – by ridiculing them mercilessly on social media.  “Too busy being part of a civilized society,” went one example that typifies the global Muslim response to ISIS on social media.

Ahmed Mohamed tweet5. Outpouring of Support for Refugees

In the wake of a flood of refugees coming from Syria in the wake of ISIS, Assad, and related military actions, we have seen another flood – one of support and compassion that accelerated after seeing photos of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed ashore after an unsuccessful attempt by his family to reach safety.  While governments had varying responses to the refugee crisis (Syria’s immediate neighbors take in the lion’s share, Western countries have a more ambivalent stance, and Gulf countries are keeping their doors closed), there have been notable personal expressions of support.  For example, one Turkish couple spent their wedding day feeding 4,000 refugee families, European citizens acted where their governments couldn’t and organized relief for families traversing Europe looking for safety, and Hollywood star Sacha Baron Cohen (perhaps trying to make up for portrayals in movies like “The Dictator” and “Borat”) donated $1 million for refugee relief.  Hundreds of U.S. churches – even evangelical ones ones that lean conservative – are actively supporting the effort as well.  With respect to politicians, attitudes toward refugee resettlement grow more positive as you get to the local level (where the impact is felt most profoundly), and mayors around the world are offering to take in more refugees. “Not allowing refugees makes America look weak,” Houston Mayor Annise Parker told reporters. “It is the only humane thing to do.”

6. Defense of Muslims in the Wake of Trump Comments

At first it seemed like a joke – real estate mogul Donald Trump running for presidency? He had mounted campaigns in the past, so most likely his bid in for the 2016 presidency would be the same crash and burn, right? Except it has been far from that. Touching a nerve and thousands in the GOP base, Trump has emerged as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential candidate, much to the horror of the American Muslim community, which has been on the receiving end of his most vicious attacks and anti-Muslim rhetoric. From saying that Muslims are not fit for office to suggesting that American Muslims need to carry identification cards, to finally saying that all Muslims should be stopped from entering the U.S. for a period of time, Trump’s last round of anti-Muslim attacks drew many community responses against him as well as pushback from within the Republican Party. Presidential candidate Lindsay Graham apologized to Muslims in the last Republican presidential debate, saying “To all of our Muslim friends throughout the world… I am sorry. He does not represent us.” The South Carolina senator went on to say that framing the fight against terrorism as a fight against Islam was dangerous and “counterproductive.” Even House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has been quiet in the past on the Republican presidential candidates, broke his silence, saying “This is not conservatism. What was proposed… is not what this party stands for and more importantly, it’s not what this country stands for.”

7. Visible Muslims take over Hollywood

2015 saw an unprecedented visibility of Muslim characters on mainstream television, and while many continue to be in roles that are related to geopolitics, several of them portrayed Muslims as everyday citizens.  Yes, you still have the typical portrayals from shows like “Homeland” and “Tyrant”, which aside from a few attempts at balance are still drenched in stereotypes, but there is a clear pattern of trying to normalize Muslims in society with more complex and – dare we say it? – average roles.  One such role, the African-American Muslim woman Aliyah Shadeed from “American Crime”, won actress Regina King a primetime Emmy for her portrayal.  Other shows that portrayed Muslim characters include ABC’s “Quantico”, which featured twin Muslim women who were two FBI agents-in-training (portrayed by Yasmine Al Massri), intrepid journalist Ayla Sayyad on the Netflix series “House of Cards” (which interestingly has three Muslim actors on its cast), and USA Network’s “Mr. Robot”, which has in its cast a Muslim woman hacker. 2015 also saw an effort by Muslim entertainers to take control of their own narrative with Aasif Mandvi’s “Halal in the Family”, a straight-to-web series that played with a wide range of stereotypes and situations that American Muslims find themselves in.  “The comedy,” explains Mandvi, “comes from the fact that they’re so afraid of being misidentified or misunderstood.”

8. ISNA’s Women Mosque Inclusion Statement

Last August, a few weeks before the 52nd annual Islamic Society of North American annual convention was to begin, Patheos Muslim blogger Hind Makki wrote a piece imagining a mosque the Prophet Muhammad (saw) would recognize, asking Muslim communities to “learn about women’s mosque experiences during the Prophetic era, to excel at the innovative use of architecture and inclusive space, and to share best practices around good governance. We are rooted in the Prophetic model.” She was referring to ISNA’s Women’s Mosque Inclusion statement, launched a few weeks later at the convention, which laid out a number of points to make mosques more inclusive and women-friendly. The initiative was spearheaded by several hard working Muslim leaders, including Makki, who worked through a less-than perfect system of engagement to bring about this landmark step. And, though it seemed to some like just words, the statement was an important step in showing the power of engagement and the importance of pushing forward on women-friendly mosques.

9. Islamic scholars declaration on climate change

The issue of climate change has not been on the front burner for many Muslim communities (save for those who are directly affected such as the Maldives, which may be the first country to disappear as a result of changing weather patterns), but that all changed in August when a gathering of Muslim scholars in Istanbul issued a call to the world’s Muslims to join in an effort to work towards phasing out greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and helping push for a 100% renewable energy strategy.  Unlike a previous “seven year plan” issued by Muslim leaders in 2000 that went nowhere, this statement joins with similar statements made by the Pope and other religious leaders to create a consensus of global religious opinion on the matter.  The statement is seen to have helped drive the December 2015 agreement at the Paris climate talks. “Islam’s teachings, which emphasize the duty of humans as stewards of the Earth and the teacher’s role as an appointed guide, illuminate pathways to take the right action on climate change,” said UN climate chief Christiana Figueres.  The declaration calls on wealthy Muslim countries to provide financial and technical support to less-affluent states so they too can work to eliminate pollution, reduce consumption of finite resources, work to stabilize the Earth’s temperature, abandon “unethical profit from the environment” and help create a global green economy.

10. Mohamed Ahmed, the “Clock” Boy

One September day in Texas, a 14-year-old boy who was a lover of all things technical and mechanic, made a clock at home and brought it to school to show off to his teachers. He was hoping for some praise and recognition for his initiative. What he received was the complete opposite. Though he had told his teachers it was a clock, Ahmed Mohamed’s English teacher, thinking it was a bomb, confiscated it and reported him to the school’s principal. Local law enforcement was called in, and the boy was questioned for 1.5 hours, after which he was handcuffed, taken into custody, transported to a juvenile detention facility and fingerprinted – all without being allowed to see his parents. Then came the school suspension. Mohamed and his family turned to their local CAIR office for help, saying the arrest was fueled by racism and Islamophobia (Mohamed, a Muslim, had a Sudanese background). And then an interesting thing happened — the world began sending their support to Ahmed. Using the hashtag #istandwithahmed, everyone from the President of the United States to famous actors and scientists and even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg tweeted their support to Ahmed. Offers to visit MIT, NASA, Facebook and Google poured in. Eventually Mohamed accepted an offer to attend the Young Innovators Program at the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. Not bad for a kid dubbed “clock boy.”

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