On Feb. 28, 2016, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) reported to law-enforcement authorities that its headquarters building in Plainfield, Ind., had been spray-painted with racial epithets over the weekend. Surveillance cameras caught three young men committing the act of vandalism in the early hours of the morning.
The number of hate crimes targeting Muslims, their mosques and their businesses has tripled over the past year. This surge in anti-Muslim attacks is in reaction to the Nov. 13, 2015, Paris attacks and the Dec. 2, 2015, terrorist attacks in San Bernardino. It may also be fueled by a hateful anti-Muslim rhetoric during this election year and campaign suggestions of registering Muslim Americans and banning all foreign Muslims, about one and a half billion of them worldwide, from entering this country.
On the Facebook page of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), someone likened what is happening to lava building inside a volcano and, finally, erupting and releasing a toxic atmosphere all around the volcano.
In a TED talk show entitled “What do you think when you look at me?” Dalia Mogahed, a Muslim researcher, pollster and author, compared Muslims to canaries in a coal mine. She said that they may be the first to feel this toxic air of fear and hatred but, eventually, it will harm everyone.
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Fortunately, many faith-based organizations and people of faith are speaking against this anti-Muslim rhetoric which is eroding the values of religious freedom on which this country was founded. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has experienced religious discrimination in its past, was the first organization to issue a statement on religious freedom and pluralism following the campaign call by a Republican presidential candidate to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
Speaking on behalf of the Catholic Church, Bishop McElroy said that “U.S. Catholics view with repugnance the ‘repeated falsehoods’ that Islam is inherently violent, that Muslims seek to supplant the U.S. Constitution with Sharia law and that Muslim immigration threatens ‘the cultural identity of the American people.’ Such claims,” he said, “are strikingly reminiscent of the anti-Catholic bigotry that was once prevalent in the United States.”
As the campaign director for Shoulder to Shoulder, Catherine Osborn has made it her mission to combat Islamophobia in the United States. Catherine’s family belongs to a small conservative Christian denomination and she says that she did not interact with Muslims when she was growing up in the Bible Belt. It was only after a trip to Egypt that she started developing meaningful relationships with Muslims. She now heads this interfaith coalition made up of over 20 national religious organizations that are united in a mission to counter rising levels of anti-Muslim sentiment in America.
In Britain, the response of Muslim leaders to fear and suspicion about their religion and their culture was to organize for the second-year running a “Visit-My-Mosque” day where non-Muslims were invited into mosques to observe religious practices and to share a cup of tea. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, visited the Makkah Mosque in London in mid-January and talked about the need to counter extremism by teaching English to Muslim women. During an interview, the Imam of the Makkah Mosque said that much more was needed. He said that there was fear on both sides and that both communities needed to come together and fight extremism because it affects both groups.
Closer to home, the Islamic Center of Boise has received an increased number of requests for education on the Islamic religion and culture. Since 2001, our Center has made the clear choice that it needed to reach out to its non-Muslim neighbors and build bridges of mutual understanding and respect. Our Center has an open-door policy for anyone interested in visiting or participating in a Friday service. We offer monthly community dinners where anyone is invited to share an ethnic meal and conversation with our members. Members of our Center also volunteer at homeless shelters like Interfaith Sanctuary.
Lately, there has been a closer rapprochement between members of the Islamic Center and members of other congregations. Many Muslim and non-Muslim couples have started sharing dinner meals and conversations in someone’s home on a rotating basis. My wife and I have participated in several of these dinner events and we have enjoyed making new friends and relationships. Breaking bread with others is one recipe that truly works at bringing people together and removing barriers of hate and prejudice.
Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.