Muslim Outreach in High Gear
American Muslims launch PR-style campaigns to defend Islam
By Ursula Owre Masterson
MSNBC
NEW YORK, Nov. 6 — As Ramadan gets underway, the war on terror heats up and military action against Iraq looms, Muslim communities across America are on a PR mission to explain what their religion is all about. From political fundraisers and food drives to open houses at Mosques, grass roots Muslim groups are working hard to shake off the bad image Islam earned in many Americans’ eyes after the Sept. 11 attacks — an image they fear may get more tarnished with the prospect of another war in the Arab world.
WITH A QUARTER of Americans now admitting to having unfavorable feelings toward Muslim-Americans, according to a recent polls, and nearly 2,000 U.S. Muslims reporting acts of discrimination to civil rights groups since last year, many Muslims have decided it’s time to act.
“Over the past year, we realized that the media was essentially painting the entire population of 1.2 billion Muslims with one stroke as bad,” explained Anwar Hasan, founder and president of the Maryland-based Howard County Muslim Council. “That’s why we’re trying to reach out to the community now, to remove the fear and ultimately make America a better place.”
Hasan, an engineer, established the Muslim Council early this year and now around 150 local Muslim professionals — including physicians, lawyers and businessmen — are involved. One of the group’s first projects was a fund-raiser for the county executive, who met with the group and subsequently appointed a Muslim physician to the Local Children’s Board.
Other projects have included a recent health fair for the poor, in which 25 Muslim doctors donated their own money and time, offering free mammogram screening and blood tests to some of Maryland’s uninsured residents.
“We’re all busy people, working full time, so we have limitations. We can’t embark on a nationwide program, but we can make a difference here,” said Hasan, who is already planning to make the health fair an annual event. “A hundred people came and they were so happy. It made us feel really good, while at the same time strengthening our ties to the community.”
Blood Drives And Walk-A-Thons
Hasan’s efforts to raise the profile of American Muslims while highlighting their contributions to society are not alone. Outreach programs run by local Mosques and universities have sprung up nationwide. In Corpus Christi, Texas, Muslim community leaders have opened the doors of their Mosque to groups like the YWCA for interfaith tea and coffee socials. They’ve also participated in blood drives and walk-a-thons. In the heartland, too, Muslims have been reaching out, with Muslim students at the University of Central Oklahoma organizing lectures and setting up booths about Islam at various campus events.
“Our main goal is to say that as Muslims, we are Americans too, and Islam does not affect our civic understanding of what this nation is based on,” said Usama Nassar, a physical therapist and member of the Islamic Society of Southern Texas, who also teaches Islamic studies to children on the weekends. “We all came here and established our new life. Just like every other American, we want freedom of religion, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
In addition to a revitalized “do good” approach to improving community relations, Muslims have combated increased anti-Muslim rhetoric with stepped-up efforts to educate fellow Americans about the “true” Islam.
The Library Project
In September, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington-based Islamic civil rights and advocacy group, launched the Library Project, which aims to distribute a collection of reading materials and DVDs about Islam to the country’s 16,000 public libraries, 95 percent of which have sought new materials on Islam and Middle Eastern history since September 2001, according to the advocacy group Libraries for the Future.
The year-long program entitled “Explore Islamic Civilization and Culture” is sponsored by private individuals — mostly from the Muslim community — who pay $150 each to place a collection of 18 carefully selected works into a participating library of their choice. Included are “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam,” “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People,” and “The Islamic Threat — Myth or Reality.”
According to CAIR Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper, the group has gotten 1,100 sponsorships so far and is well on track to achieving its goal of placing the package in most of the nation’s libraries within a year’s time. “With the growth of anti-Muslim rhetoric, we’re seeing a greater need to reach out and explain ourselves,” said Hooper. “An isolationist attitude will only feed the bigots out there.”
Fighting Bigotry
Among the most influential and dangerous of these “bigots,” according to many Muslim-Americans who have been spurred into action recently, are far-right religious leaders like Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson.
As the heir to his father’s evangelistic empire, the influential Franklin Graham has described Islam as “a very evil and wicked religion,” and Falwell recently called the Prophet Mohammed a terrorist on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” outraging Muslims world-wide.
“These individuals are only helping our enemies by attacking the tolerant, multi-faceted mosaic of our society,” wrote a coalition of American Muslim civil rights groups in an October letter to President Bush urging him to repudiate such anti-Islamic comments. “Without [a statement from you], the purveyors of hate in our society will continue to view your silence as tacit support for their bigoted views.”
And these views influence a lot of people, according to Sadullah Khan, a professor of Islamic culture at California State University, Domingo Hills and Director of the Islamic Center of Irvine. “Now that the fear of terrorism has hit home, it’s brought a degree of suspicion to our community,” he said. “Because people suddenly feel vulnerable, they are drawn to spirituality and some of these church leaders have been very irresponsible.”
Khan also believes that certain media outlets have spread paranoia by giving ample airtime to ultra-right-wing guests like columnist Ann Coulter, who openly espouses anti-Muslim views. “My concern is that irresponsible media, along with irresponsible Church leaders could bring about some very bad years for Muslims in this country,” said Khan. “If we ‘think foreign’ by withdrawing into a cocoon, people will treat us as outsiders when all we’re trying to do is live like decent American citizens. That’s why we have to show ourselves as an integral part of the community.”
Making King An Impact
And to some extent, all the outreach is working, according to CAIR. “While the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and a potential war with Iraq will no doubt add to the volatility of the situation, we’ve actually seen interfaith activities increase in the past year and Muslim leaders can’t even keep up with requests for speeches at universities,” explained Hooper, the organization’s communications director. “While many Muslims have experienced bias and discrimination, more have experienced acts of kindness and this is what we must focus on going forward.” MSNBC.com’s Ursula Owre Masterson is a reporter and international editor based in New York.