By Maha Elgenaidi
If anyone doubts the strength of anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S., a poll taken last week by YouGov should settle the issue. It revealed that 51 percent of Americans support a presidential candidate’s proposal to bar all Muslims (except U.S. citizens) from entering the U.S., while a solid plurality (45 percent) support another presidential candidate’s proposal to “empower law enforcement” to patrol Muslim neighborhoods, with only 40 percent opposing.
On a more fundamental level, a record 61 percent of Americans view Islam unfavorably, while only 19 percent view it favorably. (The remainder are undecided.) The most recent prior poll, in November 2015 showed 37 percent viewing Islam favorably, while the same 61 percent viewed it unfavorably.
Obviously a good many who formerly viewed Islam favorably now do not.
These are not figures just for one political party (For example, 83 percent of Republicans view Islam unfavorably); these represent the general population! This should be a wake-up call for all American Muslims and the coming general elections.
The steady barrage of Islamophobic statements from some politicians cannot be dismissed as mere political hot air or campaign rhetoric. By exploiting existing fears about Islam and Muslims, they have in fact incited substantial numbers of people to embrace hostile views of our community and our faith.
Muslims, therefore, need to push back against this assault. To do so, they need allies of other religions and communities to come forth to defend the rights of Muslims. Such allies are ready at hand. There are at least two national organizations focused on enlisting people of faith for this effort: Shoulder to Shoulder and Peace Catalyst. And, in my work with ING and our affiliates, we receive numerous overtures by people of various faiths who want to work with Muslims to push back against Islamophobia.
These allies are ready to stand with Muslims; but are Muslims ready to stand with them? Long-standing experiences leave me wondering about the answer to that question. Let me explain.
I recently delivered a presentation on “Contemporary Issues concerning Muslims” at a church that had invited the public; the audience included people of diverse religions and backgrounds — except that Muslims were not part of the group. The organizers had repeatedly invited Muslims by contacting the mosques in the area to take part, hoping for a broad dialogue and met with no response.
And, just last week I met with a group of Christians and Japanese Americans planning a May event to confront Islamophobia. They recounted their efforts to involve the local Muslim community by contacting the mosques and a Muslim community organization. After getting no response to repeated efforts at contact, one person drove to two mosques, one of which was almost 20 miles distance, to talk face to face, and did succeed in speaking with key people in both — but despite that got no commitment to help with the event or even to attend.
I’m not writing this to stand in judgment on my fellow Muslims. There could have been any number of reasons for not getting involved in these events, ranging from already over-packed schedules to fear of publicly confronting Islamophobes. But this isn’t new. When we’ve held interfaith events at ING, the organization for which I’m privileged to work, it’s always been a struggle to bring Muslims to participate. Muslim colleagues from other organizations could share similar experiences.
Are Muslim communities not seeing the urgency of these interfaith efforts in the present climate? This upsurge in anti-Muslim bigotry isn’t going to go away by itself; we have to confront it and push back against it. A handful of Muslims can’t do it alone, and Muslim communities can’t do without allies.
Earlier minorities who ultimately won acceptance in this country understood this. American Jews built a network of communal institutions (above and beyond their local synagogues) that not only enabled the community to speak with one voice but also actively pursued relationships with the non-Jewish world, including Christian clergy.
I recall one very telling incident from John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign, when he was frequently assailed by “Catholic-phobes” claiming he was a tool of nefarious plots by the Vatican. An unlikely ally — a conservative Protestant clergyman — came to his aid, gathering a group of his clergy peers and inviting Kennedy to come and answer their questions and concerns. Kennedy did so and got a standing ovation at the meeting’s conclusion. The CNN documentary in which I learned of this called it a turning point in the campaign.
Kennedy did not hesitate to appear before a potentially hostile audience, and his responding to their reaching out to him may well have turned the tide in his favor in a close election. Muslims need the courage that he showed.
We already have allies, and in the face of the current avalanche of attacks on us, our community and our faith, we must prioritize reaching out to them and responding promptly and decisively to even the faintest effort to reach out to us.
For those concerned with whether they can adequately present themselves and their faith to non-Muslims, there are a number of organizations that can help, including ING. ING has a variety of resources online, including online curricula available free to teachers; and answers to frequently asked questions about Islam, Shariah and ISIS. We also provide training for speakers on Islam and workshops for youth to increase their Islamic literacy and equip them to present their faith to their peers and respond to challenging questions.
The resources are there; what’s needed is the will to use them. At the very least, if you’re invited to attend an interfaith event, please respond to the call. Your presence may prevent one of our children from being bullied, Muslim woman from being assaulted or a Muslim worker from being discriminated against. You also give our allies a reason to stand up with us against bigotry when they see it.
The situation is urgent, but I remain confident that our community has the talent and courage we need to confront it and push back against it.
Maha Elgenaidi is the founder and CEO of Islamic Networks Group (ING), a non-profit organization with affiliates around the country that counter prejudice and discrimination against American Muslims by teaching about their traditions and contributions in the context of America’s history and cultural diversity, while building relations between American Muslims and other groups. To find out more about ING, visit www.ing.org
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