Last Saturday, Sept. 19, I attended Greensboro’s first Peace Festival, an event arranged in response to a hate letter sent to the Islamic Center of Greensboro. The letter was from a local restaurant that asked for the disappearance of all Muslims from the property, as their presence was making the other patrons uncomfortable.
The evening of the festival involved an array of speeches from different people in the community — some Muslim and some not — a peace march, a communal prayer, dinner provided by local Indian and Egyptian restaurants and a colorful balloon release. Throughout the evening, I was lucky to be a witness to the beautiful and unique Muslim culture.
During my time at the peace festival, my mind turned again to the idea of Islamophobia and how I simply cannot fathom the discrimination against such a lovely people. Out of the various events during the festival, I was especially in awe of the beautiful, respectful, peaceful ceremony of prayer. It is so difficult for me to understand how anyone could make a blanket statement about these people being “terrorists,” just because of the individual choices of a few.
Islamophobia, as defined by the Center for American Progress, is “an exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from social, political and civic life.”
Hate crimes against Muslims skyrocketed in 2001, no doubt in response to the events of 9/11, from fewer than 50 a year to almost 500 a year. However, those crime rates have not subsided to the pre-9/11 levels; every year since 2001, there have been roughly 250 hate crimes annually toward Muslims.
Don’t get me wrong: I am as equally angry about the events that occurred on September 11, 2001 as any other American. I lost a family member that day: Thomas Kennedy, a New York firefighter of engine 202, ladder 101, division 11, battalion 32. The acts of the people flying those planes were despicable, and there is truly no logical excuse or reasonable explanation.
However, the choices of those people do not reflect anything about the millions of Muslims living in America.
Research shows that the U.S. government has identified only 160 Muslim-American terrorist suspects and perpetrators in the decade since 9/11. To put that number in perspective, there are approximately 2.77 million Muslims living in America.
As a 2011 report by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security explains, it is from that overall collection of violence, from those 160 people, that “an efficient system of government prosecution and media coverage brings Muslim-American terrorism suspects to national attention, creating the impression that Muslim-American terrorism is more prevalent than it really is.”
Since 9/11, the Muslim-American community has helped security and law enforcement officials prevent two of every five al Qaeda terrorist plots threatening the U.S. Tips from the Muslim-American community are the largest source of initial information to authorities about those plots, which are few and far between.
It is easy to see that the media is clearly perpetuating a culture of Islamophobia when there is no need for such fear and discrimination. The U.S. government and the media together have created an enemy when there truly is none. Yes, there are Muslims in the Middle East who wish harm upon Americans in the name of their religion. But that is no reflection of the beliefs or desires of Muslims living in Greensboro.
I think if people were exposed to Islamic culture, at a mosque for example, then they would feel differently about discriminating against Muslims. Nick Russo, one of the speakers at the Peace Festival, explained that anger and fear come from a lack of knowledge, and he urged everyone in the crowd to take some time to get to know each other. That is exactly the point I want to make: Americans are scared of Muslims and their culture because they do not know anything other than the exaggerations that are perpetrated by the media about it.
A great starting point for learning about Muslim culture is to understand what their holy day is like. Friday – Jumaa – is an Islamic holy day, akin to Jewish Sabbath on Saturday or Sunday Sabbath for Christians. At the mosque, Imams – Islamic leaders – present a sermon called Jumaa Khutba that offers a theme to teach to those in attendance, in order to propagate the faith. Jumaa Khutba includes an introduction of praise to Allah (the Arabic word for God), messages supported by the Qur’an (similar to Christians’ bible), and supplication to Allah for forgiveness.
Can you see the similarities between Muslim worship service and what a typical worship service of your own religion would be? It is harder to discriminate against people who are similar to you. If we could dissolve the divide between Muslim Americans and the rest of society so that we all knew more about each other’s cultures, there would be less fear and, therefore, as Nick alluded to, less hatred and discrimination. So I urge you to take the time to get to know your Muslim peers. Ask them about their religion and their culture. Attend events hosted by the Muslim Student Association. Maybe if you get to know these people better, you’ll understand there is nothing to be afraid of and nothing to discriminate against.