Proactive Steps Needed To Combat Americans’ Discomfort With Muslims & Islam

December 3, 2010

According to a survey conducted last month by the Public Religion Research Institute, 49 percent of Americans feel that Islam is at odds with American values. These 49 percent are not to blame. We cannot place responsibility for such negative sentiments on the media, political opportunists, pundits or even Hollywood. As Muslim Americans, we must be willing and able to engage in communal introspection. Let’s face the facts: We have failed when it comes to reaching out to the 49 percent and ensuring that an authentic Muslim American discussion takes place in the public square.

If we do not take ownership for why so many Americans feel uneasy about us, the consequences will be dire for the future of Islam in America. The overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans are model citizens who are integral members of their local communities, taking part in public affairs, community service and interfaith projects. Yet, as much as we contribute to America as a whole, we also see segments of Muslim Americans living in isolation and alienating themselves from mainstream American life.

Common misperceptions of Islam stem from a misunderstanding of basic foundational issues, such as women’s rights, violence, and relations between Muslims and people of other faiths. In looking at women’s rights as a case study, Americans are bombarded with images of Muslim women abroad and here at home being treated like second-class citizens, being egregiously persecuted and brutally punished in the name of Islam. Though this contradicts the reality of most Muslim women, we cannot ignore the cases that do arise. We must discuss these issues openly and put forth a strong narrative that amplifies the true values of our faith, and diminishes misogynist and cultural baggage that has plagued Muslim American communities.

In order for us to change the perception of half our fellow citizens, we need to provide the support mechanism to ensure that they see beyond the stereotypes. It’s a two-way process. This means standing firmly against extremism and those who threaten our country. This means advocating for issues beyond our own religious circle. This means standing in solidarity with those who are oppressed, Muslim or non-Muslim, and taking on issues of racism and discrimination in our country. In short, we must demonstrate more concern for all human beings, as the Quran mandates. The image of Islam and Muslims is in our hands – our actions either improve or further erode public perception about our position within our society. It’s time for all of us to join existing efforts to get involved, or create new ones.

Until we engage and embrace even those Americans who have apprehensions about and even prejudice towards Muslims, we have failed. Engaging our society, while acknowledging our shortcomings and our failures are crucial steps in developing a strong future for Islam in America. Allowing for those who have sincere misgivings about Islam to address their concerns openly is important. If we are able to do this, then the voices of those who seek to marginalize our community based on a political agenda will they themselves be marginalized, not the mainstream Muslim American community.

Let us take to heart and to action the words of the Quran: “Truly, God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (13:11).

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