The summer of 2010 has seen tremendous anti-Muslim rhetoric, fervor, and disinformation. By twisting the truth about Islam and Muslims, a relatively small number of anti-Muslim ideologues have managed to take over the discourse and create a truly hostile environment for American Muslims. This is being borne out in the numerous mosque fights that have sprung up across the country, with the grandest example being the non-controversy that became the controversial “Ground Zero Mosque,” or as comedian Jon Stewart likes to call it, the “Community Center of Death.”
The root cause of all this hostility is ignorance and misinformation. Americans are still woefully misinformed about Islam. According to a recent Pew Research Poll, 65% of Americans know either “some” or “not very much” about Islam. One in four Americans know “nothing at all.” This void in knowledge is fertile ground into which Islamophobes can plant their seeds of misinformation. Yet, I cannot blame my fellow non-Muslim Americans for this lack of knowledge about Islam. Many Americans know very little about even their own faiths.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the US Religious Knowledge Survey detailing Americans’ knowledge about religion. And it does not look pretty. According to the survey, more than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. About half of Protestants (53%) cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion a separate branch of Christianity. Roughly four-in-ten Jews (43%) do not recognize that Maimonides, one of the most venerated rabbis in history, was Jewish.
This puts Americans’ lack of knowledge about Islam in perspective. Nevertheless, ignorance is our real enemy in this struggle against the forces of hatred and division, and the more ignorance there is, the stronger the hand of those who seek to marginalize the American Muslim community. What can Muslims do about this? “Work harder,” is the inevitable answer. “Work harder at educating the American public about Islam.”
Yet, even that is becoming more and more difficult to do. People are being told not to trust what Muslims say because they are all practicing “taqiyya.” The recent declaration of Faisal Shahzad that when he took an oath of allegiance to the United States, he “did not mean it” does not help to dispel this falsehood. Moreover, there are moves to change American textbooks, which have been deemed by some to be too “pro-Muslim.” So, what are we to do?
More engagement, on both a personal and national level, needs to be undertaken. American Muslims all live somewhere, and that “somewhere” has neighbors. American Muslims need to know their neighbors on an intimate, personal level. Exchange gifts, go to block parties, coach softball teams, become Neighborhood Watch block captains – that is the best way to teach about Islam, by showing what “real live Islam” looks like. Yes, public service announcements highlighting the role of Muslim 9/11 first responders do help in a big way. Yes, more credible, honest Muslim spokespeople in the mainstream media help. But, local engagement is the key.
In addition, Muslims must enter into the field of the arts in droves: writing books, producing television shows, and making films. Muslims have already made great strides: the wonderful work of Unity Productions Foundation, Azhar Usman, Wajahat Ali, and G. Willow Wilson are excellent examples. I am also trying to contribute to this effort with my forthcoming book, Noble Brother, which is the story of the Prophet Muhammad told entirely in poetry. Each one of us has a talent, and we should try to use that talent to contribute to the American Muslim story.
Moreover, Muslims should start promoting themselves a little more on a local level. I was speaking to a Muslim producer of a local Chicago TV network news affiliate, and she told me that a great way to increase the number of positive stories about Muslims in the media is to self-promote. More of us should be the “local experts” on Islam and the American Muslim story and share this expertise with their local news media.
We should all have Press Kits ready for distribution. If we are doing something positive, such as running a marathon for a good cause or donating to a free clinic, we should send out a press release. Foment good relationships with local print and broadcast reporters. This is already being done all across the country, but we need more of it. We all know that American Muslims contribute positively to the country’s well being every single day; more of our neighbors should know about it as well.
This is not an easy task, not in the least. But, it is essential. It is not necessary that every non-Muslim American become experts at Islam; many are not even expert in their own faiths. But what is necessary is that we are all familiar enough with each other – our likes, our dislikes, our hopes, our dreams – that when we see images of pedophile priests or “Islamic” suicide bombers, we say to ourselves, “I know that is not the reality, because my neighbor is not like that. And I believe my neighbor more than I believe what’s on the TV.” And we will all the better for it.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is called God, Faith, and a Pen.