The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, Virginia’s oldest faith-based advocacy group, has recently started a new campaign titled “Rethink Bias.” The group will display three unique posters depicting people in various religious head coverings on the outside of Richmond’s GRTC buses.
The campaign aims to educate people and create respect for the practices of the diverse religious groups in the area. Many agree that while religious bias is a huge problem in our society, getting rid of it in one clean sweep will not be possible. Can a simple program like this be effective in eliminating religious bias?
“Some people look at me like I am a threat” said Narmin Anwar, a data analyst and hijab-wearing Muslim. “They tense up when I enter the bank or the train station.”
Many Muslims feel a negative religious bias in America. According to the Pew Research Center, about a quarter of all Muslim Americans have experienced some sort of discrimination. Muslim women wearing the hijab feel the effects of discrimination even more because they are more noticeable. Although many do treat Muslims kindly, the hostility of others is a major problem. Anwar believes education is the obvious solution to tackling this problem.
Education is exactly the idea behind The Virginia Interfaith Center’s new campaign. The three unique posters will depict a woman in a hijab, a Jewish man wearing a yarmulke, and two Sikh students wearing turbans. On each poster is a variation of the phrase, “Why do I wear this? It’s okay to ask me.” The poster directs viewers to a website which explains the religious meanings behind each of the head coverings depicted.
“Through this campaign, the Center strives to foster understanding and relationships between people of various religious backgrounds,” said Marco Grimaldo, CEO and President of the Virginia Interfaith Center.
“We often fear what we don’t understand,” said Holly Coy, Virginia Interfaith Center Director of Programs. She said distributing these posters in such a creative way will catch people’s attention and push them to go visit the website. Through this, they will learn about different religions and rethink and preconceived religious biases.
The group did a similar project where common American expressions such as “Paper or plastic” and “I’m a little tea pot…” were written in Arabic calligraphy on buses. The idea was to dispel people’s fear of Arabic and Islam. But the posters ended up scaring a lot of people, according to Coy, who explained that this showed how people feared what they did not understand.
Coy said that by understanding the practices of different minority religions, people can respect them. Through education, people can see the similarities between themselves and followers of other religions. For example, the three religions shown on the posters are very different, but they all share the fact that they wear a head covering.
Brad, a Christian high school student in Maryland, describes how the general public’s first reaction when they see a woman wearing a hijab is to think “terrorist.” He believes that the stereotype is so well-ingrained that this campaign won’t effectively tackle it. He says that people who have a bias against those wearing head coverings will not “go on a website that they’re prejudiced toward.”
On the other hand, Puja Sood, a Hindu fourth-year medical student at the University of Rochester, said the issue can be tackled. She believes that the bias in America against Muslims is not strong enough to last forever. People want to learn about different cultures and beliefs. As generations go on, she said, these religious biases will slowly disintegrate. But the key to this is that people must become more knowledgeable of different religious beliefs. She said a campaign like this is a great idea and can help people gain the knowledge they need to end their ignorance.
“It’s a start,” says Khalid Iqbal, deputy director of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) in Sterling, Va. He believes that one of the key reasons people have biases against particular religions is that they are not knowledgeable enough about them. The new campaign can be effective in limiting bias against Muslims, Iqbal said, but he also feels that Muslims doing the teaching themselves would be more effective.
If Muslims are proud of their identity, join politics, and do social services, people will become more knowledgeable about Islam through this increased exposure, Iqbal said. The ADAMS Center is soon going to serve meals at a home for the elderly. Iqbal believes actions like these are the greatest way to stop religious bias.
Nevertheless, Iqbal commends the efforts of the Virginia Interfaith Center and calls the campaign “a very humble beginning” in the effort to stop religious bias.