America is suffering from a fear of Muslims. It is felt in everyday interactions at workplaces, when applying for jobs, when interacting with others in public places, in short, everywhere.
Often times the pervasiveness of this fear and misunderstanding can lead Muslims into a feeling of despair. After all, what is one supposed to do in front of threats like irresponsible media, endless war, and continuing terrorist attacks?
Giving up is not an option.
Theorists have developed different tools for analyzing societies. Some of these focus on ideas such as the civil society—the group of non-governmental organizations and institutions that make up society. Others have placed more focus on the public sphere—the common, shared world that exists between all the people of a given society. The latter has been used more especially in relation to peoples who are living under oppression, lacking the freedoms that are necessary to engage in a civil society. Muslims in America are not living under an oppressive regime when it comes to domestic policy, but there is definitely a hegemonic nature to the public perception towards Muslims.
I think we need to accept a difficult reality. As long as Western foreign policies in majority Muslim lands remain as they have been we are not likely to see an end to terrorist attacks by Muslims. We DO NOT agree with such attacks, but are simply stating the reality. As noted in this article in Foreign Policy, “New research provides strong evidence that suicide terrorism such as that of 9/11 is particularly sensitive to foreign military occupation, and not Islamic fundamentalism or any ideology independent of this crucial circumstance.” That foreign military occupation is not decreasing and its consequences will continue.
This reality poses a difficult situation for the average Muslim in America. Muslims in America are a diverse lot. They are rich and poor, educated and less educated, immigrant and American-born. However, even with all that is going on around the world and at home, they have consistently proven to have generally mainstream and moderate ideas. (Take this Pew Study for example.) So how does the average Muslim in America combat the reality of the consequence of the last paragraph and news outlets like Fox News which tend to fan the flames of ignorance and bigotry?
In my view our main opportunity is to take it back to the basics. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was a good person who was respected by friends and enemies alike. Even those who rejected and opposed his message could not doubt his character. The Prophet was also a people person who fully embraced his responsibility of clarifying the message that he brought to mankind. He did this in spite of the equivalent of a media campaign against him and many other odds. The thing is, that was his job and it is our job as well. The only thing that is more powerful than external influences is the real, everyday human touch that we bring to personal relationships.
So, to bring in the points in the beginning, I believe that our responsibility and chance to positively impact the perception of the public in relation to Muslims and help them see the true beauty of Islam is by opening ourselves up to engage more with people in our personal and public lives. This is simple, but it actually works. This Pew study found that people who knew Muslims looked significantly more favorably upon the faith than those who did not.
The Muslims I know are beautiful people. They have problems no doubt, just like everyone else, but they are beautiful. It is this beauty that we need to actively hold up in front of others, not out of arrogance or self-righteousness, but out of clarifying what we are actually about in the face of so much ugliness.
Of course, it is not enough to just say this and not think about ways to encourage those interactions and make them more fruitful. There will be more to come on that in future articles, God willing.