An Honest Story: America's Path Out of Islamophobia


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“The New York Police Department is doing everything it can to make sure there’s not another 9/11 here and that more innocent New Yorkers are not killed by terrorists,” said New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne. “And we have nothing to apologize for in that regard.”

Browne’s statement came in response to the anger surrounding the recent revelations of the NYPD’s undercover operations and surveillance — and civil liberty infringements — in minority neighborhoods. 
 
Though the NYPD’s mission is appropriate (there is, without a doubt, great value in protecting our country from terrorist threats), some of its methods are suspect. The department’s main offense was specifically targeting Muslim neighborhoods, without evidence of wrongdoing, as part of a human mapping program which included monitoring daily life in bookstores, bars, cafes, nightclubs, and even mosques.
 
This wasn’t the first time Muslims have been targets of vigilant circumspection. Defense measures have tightened since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; in order to prevent another such act, the FBI has made counterterrorism the nation’s leading priority, spending well over half of its budget on field agents and a nationwide network of informants. The Pentagon has gone as far as to pose as al-Qaeda agents online, spreading “confusing and contradictory orders, some so virulent that young Muslims dabbling in jihadist philosophy, but on the fence about it, might be driven away,” according to a report published in The New York Times
 
The federal budget, which funds a number of (perhaps questionable) clandestine security forces, suggests that Islam is a threat to our national security and that the enemy is all around us, always threatening. My point of contention is that the terrorist threat posed by radicalized Muslim-Americans after 9/11 has been vastly exaggerated.

Muslim-American terrorism has resulted in fewer than three dozen of the 136,000 murders committed in the country; of the 139 offenders, fewer than one-third successfully executed a violent plan. And although 15 American private citizens did fall victim to terrorist attacks last year worldwide — most of which occurred in Afghanistan — many more Americans died of dog bites and lightning strikes
 
Muslim-Americans are unfairly represented as violent jihadists, but further evidence suggests the opposite; these communities have actually been active in preventing radicalization, according to Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim Americans, a joint study conducted by Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill.
 
“[S]ince 9/11, there has been increased tension among Muslim-Americans about their acceptance in mainstream American society," the study said. Muslim-Americans report feeling a stronger anti-Muslim bias from the media as well as from day-to-day interactions.
 
"While Muslim-Americans understand and support the need for enhanced security and counterterrorism initiatives, they believe that some of these efforts are discriminatory, and they are angered that innocent Muslim-Americans bear the brunt of the impact of these policies."
 
The cards of public opinion are stacked against Muslim-Americans. Some of white America is fixated on less-demanding and readily-accessible misrepresentations of Islamic culture; specifically, the Center for American Progress has revealed seven foundations that have contributed nearly $50 million over the past decade to campaigns designed to fuel Islamophobia and “fan the flames of anti-Muslim hate in America.” 
 
In spite of the long odds Muslim-Americans face, there are many new opportunities for Muslim-Americans to reintroduce themselves to the world through the power of the Internet and social media. 
 
The (appropriately named) “My Fellow American” project and the storytelling platform 30 Mosques in 30 Days have set out to do just that.  
 
“My Fellow American” is an online film and social media project dedicated to changing the “fearful and often hateful rhetoric” by portraying Muslim-Americans as a “part of the national fabric that holds our country together.” It’s more than merely a public relations campaign; having partnered with the media and education nonprofit Unity Productions Foundation, “My Fellow American” loosens the grip Islamophobia has on the country by empowering citizens to create, share, and accept a more accurate interfaith dialogue.
 
“We want to affect the national discourse,” said Khuram Zaman, project manager and consultant for Unity Production Foundation, in an interview with Ashoka Changemakers. “The idea is to give Muslims a platform to portray themselves in an objective, authentic manner — which hasn’t always been possible because of the influence of mainstream media — as well as to address the negative, reactional views we’ve seen for a while, but which became vitriolic in the past year or so.
 
“You don’t have to be of the Jewish faith to be concerned about anti-Semitism; you don’t have to be gay to be concerned about gay rights and homophobia; you don’t have to be Muslim to be concerned about Islamophobia. It is a concern not only for Muslims, but for all citizens. It’s about speaking out against bigotry. It’s about dignity, equality, and democracy; that’s the inspiration behind the project.” 
 
My Fellow American promotes peace through video, storytelling, dialogue, and community building, believing that simultaneously engaging different segments of the population is the only way to garner an effective response. The project has attracted the support of interfaith leaders, students, celebrities, and politicians, including Russell Simmons and Congressman Keith Ellison (DFL-MN), who have pledged to become activists and contribute to the movement by sharing stories about Muslims they admire.
 
A second project, “30 Mosques in 30 Days,” is also changing attitudes through the art of storytelling. The project chronicles the wanderings of advertising copywriter Bassam Tariq and comic Aman Ali who set out to visit one mosque for every day of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. 
 
“Instead of politicizing incredible stories, we wanted to champion the true art of the project,” said Tariq. “It can be very genuine without the public relations element. There is something very human, very real about that — that’s what stays with people and that’s what we really wanted.”
 
The 30 Mosques stories share the daily struggles and successes of Muslim-Americans, from the eccentric centenarian, Lutfullah Wali, to the free-flowing hip hopper, Brother Ali. Their stories, accompanied by rich visuals, are told in such a clever and compelling fashion that they have captivated a sympathetic audience. This year, the 30 Mosques following raised more than $12,000 to sponsor Tariq and Ali’s second trip across the United States — this time, a 13,000-mile road trip from Anchorage, Alaska to New York City.
 
“The stories get at something deeper we can all connect to, something larger that speaks volumes about the communities around us,” Tariq said. “Spending more and more time with our people (Muslim-Americans), you fall in love with the humanity of it all. 
 
“Everyone is trying to live. We have similar struggles as people: falling in love, trying to redeem ourselves, facing life in prison, working a job we dislike tremendously and not knowing how to get out of it. The humanity of it makes you have more faith in people, and that’s what we’re all about.”
 
There are 2.5 million Muslim-Americans, less than one percent of the more than 300 million United States citizens, so it’s not surprising that the majority of Americans have never met a Muslim. The consequence of this reality is that the vast majority of Americans associate Muslim-Americans — and further, Islam as a whole — as a community to fear. 
 
As such, only 46 percent of Americans have a positive view of American Muslims, a figure surprisingly up from just 39 percent in 2002. It’s still shameful and embarrassing that the proportion with a positive view isn’t higher in a country that values diversity and treasures the freedom of religion.
 
The institutionalized ethnographic misinformation that surrounds Islam and Muslim people is a social injustice and a destructive influence on the promise of a stronger nation. It is tough enough to understand an ideology — much less a person — without false characterizations, which is why sharing the real stories of Americans who happen to be Muslim is such an extraordinary undertaking. 
 
Muslim-Americans are simply Americans. They love this country. They’ve been Americans for generations and they’ve been Americans for weeks. They’re Marine Corps veterans, they’re alcoholics, they’re students, and they’re even some of basketball’s most accomplished and decorated superstars
 
“We (as Muslims) have to be the face of this movement, because that’s how people will identify with us,” said Tariq. “We have to make sure that people have a relationship with us; that makes them trust what we have to share with them, like the lesser-known faces of Muslim America. That’s how we can foster understanding; that’s how we can inspire action.”

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