As a Muslim, it is heartbreaking for me to see the extremely negative political rhetoric coming out of our presidential candidates’ mouths. From threats to bar Muslims from entering the United States, to promises to carpet bomb certain Middle Eastern countries, you name it, it’s been said. The anger that should be directed at criminals and terrorists is now being directed at the average law-abiding citizens of the Islamic faith. Worse, brown-skinned people of other religious backgrounds – Sikhs for instance – are also facing the wrath of an ignorant and angry populace simply because they resemble the stereotypical image of Muslims.
Many American Muslims I know are worried and highly stressed. They are watching election campaigning with an anxious eye, wondering where they will go and what they will do if a presidential candidate with anti-Islamic views comes into power. There are jokes of immigrating to Canada, but the fact remains that we are Americans for better and for worse. We cannot and will not move away from our homes, from the places we grew up and now our children are growing up, simply because of hateful political rhetoric. We can do better, and we can encourage our fellow American voters to reject this bigoted political ideology.
How? My idea may be radical, but it works. Interfaith dialogue and discussions big and small revolving around faith are now a necessity. In fact I believe them to be crucial in today’s political environment. Mainstream media often portrays negative and extreme viewpoints of Islam, and politicians have long been taking advantage of this lack of understanding to get elected. It’s time for some change, and that will only come about through the spread of information.
For instance, media and the political set-up both use stereotypical images of Muslims (and other marginalized groups) to spread fear and mistrust. The “Muslim male as terrorist” or “Muslim woman as oppressed” caricature has resulted in many wars and millions of deaths, while the American public often doesn’t realize that reality is very different. By meeting people of different faiths in a church, mosque or even home setting, we can share the truth about stereotypes and show how varied and interesting Muslims really are. Instead of sitting at home watching cable news, go out and meet a Muslim, tour a mosque, ask questions. We will always be happy to answer.
Interfaith and intercultural dialogue offers a unique opportunity to participants. We can share our personal experiences and learn from each other in a way that’s not possible through lectures, seminars or news reports. Whether it’s an interfaith iftar where everybody sits together and eats a meal, or an observance of another’s prayer rituals, we can come together to understand and grow spiritually as well as intellectually.
As an illustration, here’s a little experiment I conducted last weekend. We had a group of women from a Lutheran church visit our mosque for a quilting session. Sounds cute? It was. We have had great relations with this church for several years, and this isn’t our first quilting session. But past events have been at the church and we all thought it would be a good idea to invite the ladies to our mosque for a change. My friend at the church did an amazing job spreading the word and encouraging women who had never set foot in a mosque to take this opportunity before the elections to “get some insider information.” The event was a success, not only because together we created 6 quilts for donation, but more so because the ladies from the church got a chance to tour the mosque, meet actual Muslims, and ask any questions they desired. And they did. I felt as if some hearts had been changed and some mindsets improved as a result of our little quilting session.
Does this have a snowball’s chance in hell of turning the election tide away from fascism, intolerance and worse? I believe so. Those voting for bigoted candidates are mostly doing so because they are buying into the stereotypical hype. They are seeing angry, hateful “Muslims” on their television screens and thinking that’s a correct embodiment of what Islam stands for. The truth is so different that I am convinced their minds would change if they only knew better. If they could get to know me, see my love for this country and my hopes for my family, witness the work I do every single day, they would no longer be able to say that all Muslims are evil. If this could be multiplied hundreds of times, and they could see the more than 1 billion Muslims who are human beings just like them, they would let go of their anger and fear.
Mine may be a very simplistic strategy, but I do believe that education removes ignorance, patience works wonders on anger. Let’s all organize interfaith discussions wherever we are, even if it’s just two or three people in our living room, and let’s change the political landscape of America. One conversation at a time.
Image: Copyright The Nation, Pakistan.