“How many of you believe that one person can make a difference?” Shafath Syed asked a packed audience at the ISNA 52nd annual convention, gathered for “Countering Stereotypes through Authentic Narratives.” Syed scanned the room, and commented, “That’s great; but I noticed that not everyone raised their hands.”
The panel on countering Islamophobia featured Syed, a Bay Area inventor, together with Ameena Jandali, founder of the Islamic Network Group (ING), and Daniel Tutt, Director of Programs at Unity Production Foundation (UPF). This panel reflected a larger theme that permeated throughout the ISNA convention.
Islamophobia is at an all-time high today, and it will take every hand to reverse the tides. In the July 2014 national surveys from Zogby Analytics, only 27% of respondents viewed Muslim Americans as favorable. Furthermore, two out three Americans have never met a Muslim. “That means that the predominant way that Americans understand Islam and Muslims is through the media,” Daniel Tutt explained.
The predominant representation of Islam in the media is not positive. Ameena Jandali presented a series of images and screenshots from the news, and pointed out, “Most of these images are overwhelmingly negative. They tend to be very oppositional in their nature. They are anti-women, anti-democracy, overly religious. They are neither relatable nor likable.” Tutt continued, “The media is saturated with that very particular frame on Islam.”
The misrepresentation of Islam in the media is not new. Twenty-two years ago, Jandali founded ING, as she explained, “We began this organization in 1993, when there was a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment that was obvious in the media. With the fall of Communism, we realized the new enemy was going to be Islam and Muslims.”
ING fights Islamophobia through education and community engagement with schools, colleges and universities, law enforcement agencies, corporations, healthcare facilities, and community organizations. Jandali explained that the programs serve “as a way to counter the narrative that had already began to be common place, that Muslims are violent.”
Also dedicated to ending Islamophobia, the mission of UPF is “to create peace through the media.” UPF has produced eleven documentary films that broadcast on big screen the true stories of Muslims, historical and contemporary. Rather than focusing on terrorism, Tutt advised, “Re-direct the question to show that Islam is defined by the way in which American Muslims live out their Islam. The way in which they participate as citizens, the way in which they treat their neighbors.” Tutt shared with audience members the news of new films along these lines. Set for release in October 2015, “American Muslims: Facts vs. Fiction” (AmericanMuslimFacts.com) will show the latest statistics on American Muslims, including their careers, activism, volunteerism, and other factors that show that American Muslims are an integral part of the American fabric. Set for release in a year, “The Sultan and the Saint,” will tell the story of St. Frances, who, Tutt explained, “went to Egypt during the height of a crusade and he engaged in one week in a dialogue with Muslims, which became transformative in his spirituality.”
In our world of images, it is crucial to replace inaccurate images of Islam and Muslims with accurate ones. Jandali explained, “The solution is to present a more diverse picture of what it means to be a Muslim. To identify commonalities. To highlight contributions, whether we are talking about the past history of Muslims, or the present day contributions.” ING develops curricula about Islam and Muslims, and supplies them to instructors for use in classrooms from the middle school to university level, and in facilities from law enforcement to health care organizations. Two new ING curricula tell stories that may be news even to Muslims: do you know Emir Abd el-Kader, the Algerian leader from the mid-19th century who rescued thousands of Christians from massacre in Damascus? Do you know Badsha Khan, the affiliate of Ghandi who helped to promote a non-violent resistance to English rule in what is now India? To counter Islamophobia, Jandali recommended one thing first: “American Muslims need to become more literate themselves. Our FAQs are good for Muslims as well as people outside of the faith.”
Syed also provided concrete examples of how each of us can do something to end Islamophobia. He described the challenges, and the way that we respond as tests to our character. Syed provided a conceptual model, displayed below, which defines how negative stereotypes on Islam and Muslims come to life, and how Muslims tend to respond.
1. ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups and world events that we don’t control lead to ignorance.
2. 2/3rd of Americans have never met a Muslim.
3. Some politicians take advantage of these world events and general ignorance.
4. The Islamophobia industry pumps millions of dollars into demonizing Muslims.
5. The media amplifies the stereotypes.
How Muslims Respond
1. Get mad and angry. Why is this happening?
2. Get depressed. Go into a place where you can ignore the situation and cry about it.
3. Get motivated. Do something about it.
* These points have been edited from Syed’s conceptual model for clarity.
Syed also developed a number of projects to set the record straight on Islam. To counter all of the negative stories on Islam in the media, he said, “I decided to create a website called MuslimGoodNews.com.” This website serves as a platform for the multitude of news stories on Muslims every day. Syed searches the cloud, and curates content, and like many of the most successful movements today, this project is fueled by people—Syed encourages readers to submit stories, and share them, too.
On the other end of the spectrum, Syed also directly addresses the bad news. He explained, “People are always saying, why don’t Muslims denounce this or condemn that? There are many organizations that have condemned all sorts of things.” To publicly condemn and highlight the condemnations, Syed said, “I created another website called NotInIslam.com; it’s a curation of videos, statements, anything that I could find that shows that things that are happening that Muslims are doing are wrong.”
Syed’s latest project is still in the works. This project will provide “a way for any American to meet Muslims.” Syed explained, “This is a way to go online and say, I want to meet Muslims in my area. They can meet online or Google Hang Outs, or in person. I firmly believe that if every American can meet an American Muslim, then it doesn’t matter what the media says about Muslims, because they will know the reality.” This groundbreaking idea can fix the statistic that one out of three Americans today has met a Muslim—Syed aims for three out of three, 100%.
We all have an opportunity and a responsibility to replace the tides of ignorance with knowledge. One gem on how to end Islamophobia came from an audience member, Debbie DePalma, who passionately urged, “Join a group! The less it has to do with religion, the better, say a bike safety commission. It is important for Americans to see Muslims involved with all aspects of community life, not just religion.”
Involvement and authentic self-representation permeated every session at ISNA, not just the one that bore this name. At a standing room only session for young professionals, this same message reverberated: Islamophobia is a problem, and at this critical juncture, we can serve as a part of the solution. Mehdi Hasan, a prominent presenter on Al Jazeera, shared a story that highlights the problem, “In Britain an experiment was done sending out the same resume with a Muslim name and a non-Muslim name. The non-Muslim name got 25 times more calls.” However, Hasan stressed the positive, “We have an opportunity to change things for the better for the Muslim community.” Suroor Raheemullah, Head of Global Mobility at Dover Corp, emphasized how we can change things for the better simply by being ourselves. She told the packed audience, “What I can do in my everyday work is be proud of being Muslim.” This advice is easier said than done at a time when studies suggest that it can be easier for Muslims to go by “Sam” instead of “Sameer;” “Mo” instead of “Mohammed;” and “David” instead of “Dawood.” Raheemullah emphasized the importance of representing ourselves authentically not only by name, but more importantly, by actions. She shared her own experiences in applying for jobs, “I was vehemently told, don’t put that [MSA] on your resume. But if we don’t put it out there, how will people know about all the good things Muslims are doing.”
At the end of the day, Syed reminded the audience, “Actions speak louder than words. The only way we are going to change attitudes about Muslims is through good actions. Do something good in your community and people will recognize that good.” The misconceptions about Islam and Muslims can be corrected one person at a time. He asked the same question from the start of his talk about whether we believe one person can make a difference, and with a renewed urgency, he added, “I want to see every hand go up.”