(U-WIRE) LINCOLN, Neb. – Last year, along with about 200 other people, I attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Muslim Student Association’s Ramadan Night, an annual event MSA began organizing a few years ago.
The event programming included a great deal about the basics of Islam and was good for educating non-Muslims about some of the negative stereotypes and misperceptions concerning Islam.
These misperceptions are apparently more common than I ever would have expected.
Thirty-four percent of Americans see American Muslims as “sympathetic to the al-Qaida terrorist organization” and less than half see American Muslims as loyal to the United States.
Thirty-nine percent of Americans admit harboring some prejudice against American Muslims. The same percent favor requiring American Muslims to carry a special ID identifying their religion.
These statistics are from a recent USA Today/Gallup telephone poll of 1,007 adults aged 18 and older conducted from July 28-30. The margin of error was reported at plus or minus 3 percent.
Twenty-four percent of respondents expressed they would not want an Arab (not specifically a Muslim) as a neighbor. I suppose you can call me naive for never expecting that in 2006 almost a quarter of Americans could be blatant racists.
Respondents over 65 years of age and respondents identifying themselves as Republicans were more likely to hold bigoted negative attitudes towards American Muslims.
For anyone with any knowledge of history, especially the history of violently oppressed peoples, these numbers are bloodcurdling. These are the kind of figures I would expect to prefigure genocide, a system of internment camps, apartheid, ghettoization or some other widespread institutionalized racism.
I’m getting before-my-time deja vu. It feels like I’ve seen this before: The Jim Crow Laws of the American South, the May Laws of Czar Alexander III’s Russia and the Nuremberg Laws of the Third Reich seem perched on the horizon of history rather than on the dung heap.
However, far less likely to harbor bigoted attitudes toward American Muslims were those who actually know at least one Muslim. While 50 percent of respondents who didn’t know a Muslim favored special IDs, only 24 percent who knew one favored requiring special “papers” for those who worship Allah.
So there is hope in interfaith outreach and intercommunity fellowship. The percentages of people fearing Muslims drop when people have an alternative to media reports of violent extremists who have as little in common with Islam as the Nazis’ “Positive Christianity” had to do with Christian orthodoxy.
If every community makes an effort to reach out to others, to let them know who they are and what they stand for, to shake each others’ hands and watch their children play together, not only can Islamophobia be quelled, but also other forms of xenophobia.
The Gallup poll also reported sizeable percentages of Americans who did not want to live near gay people, immigrants, foreign workers and Hindus. These communities also could surely benefit from increased contact with majority communities.
I know how much of a burden this task can be. As a Jew, sometimes I feel it’s unfair that so often I feel like some kind of goodwill ambassador to non-Jewish Americans.
Why do I have to go to extra efforts and give lengthy explanations about my faith, my people and my identity because some hayseed hasn’t ever bothered to read an encyclopedia article on world religions? Why is it my responsibility to enlighten an ignorant majority?
It should not be too much to ask that in America I would be able to live in my identity and practice my faith without patronizing comments, blank stares and raised eyebrows.
It’s not only fair, but it’s imperative. Those who fear and misunderstand Islam, like those that fear and misunderstand Judaism, must learn they have nothing to fear firsthand. Often they will be obdurate in their mistaken views and require deliberate effort on the part of American Muslim communities to reach out in brotherhood and camaraderie. America needs more “Ramadan Nights” – events explicitly intended to bridge cultural divides. With a Muslim population in the U.S. comparable to the Jewish population of the U.S., I know that resources are limited. Organizing concerted outreach efforts would require people and money that for many communities is simply not there.
But larger secular organizations and religious organizations such as churches have more resources to work with. They can take on some of the responsibility of education for tolerance and understanding by initiating outreach from their end first.
And everybody, regardless of faith, identity or money, can take the time to write a letter to a news media outlet when they hear or read language that perpetuates xenophobia and racism.
Read up on the communities different from your own and then seek diverse friends. Search your soul and ask yourself honestly how you view people who are different from you. Challenge your buddies when they say something that isn’t fair or right and have the guts to change America for the better.