This was the title of the panel discussion I attended last night at the Newseum, sponsored by the Religious Freedom Education Project and several other organizations including Unity Productions Foundation (UPF).
The crowd slowly filed into the Annenberg Theater—usually home to the museum’s 4D time-travel movie—and the diversity of the attendees was immediately evident. I squeezed into a seat to the right of an African American woman and behind a Muslim woman in a hijab.
The event began with Muslim-American Alexander Kronemer of UPF introducing the short film, My Fellow American. The film featured voices of some Right Wing commentators making extreme claims about the religion of Islam overlaid on video clips of everyday Americans—doctors, fire fighters, businessmen, children—who also happened to be Muslims.
Following the film, the event continued with an expert panel moderated by Dr. Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum. Panelists included: Haroon Moghul of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, Melissa Rogers of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University, Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and Asma Uddin of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Of the panelists, two were Muslim, one was Jewish, and one was Baptist.
Haynes emphasized the agenda of the night, encouraging people to “ask the hard questions about Islam in America,” either by coming up to the microphones in the front of the theater or submitting questions via note card. Not so surprisingly, only a handful of people (two at first, and a few other stragglers toward the end) actually came up to the mic to ask a question and simultaneously reveal their ideas about Islam to a 500-person crowd. I saw this as evidence that our collaborative fear of openly discussing and asking about Islam may, in itself, be one of the fundamental reasons events like this are so essential.
Most questions were relatively profound and not judgmental nor close-minded. Even the woman who clearly hadn’t read this post and spent a little too much time deliberating about her own personal belief system (or was it atheism?) offered a meaningful inquiry into the parts of Islam that many Americans know little about.
One question fell along the lines of: Don’t we actually have good reasons to be fearful of Muslims? Look at all of the killings made in honor of Islam, etc.
Across the panel, the response to this was a version of, “These are fringe groups and not the case for the majority of Muslims.” More specifically, Rabbi Schneier said, “All the radical groups are fringe groups. There are internal struggles between extremism and modernism. Every religion has this battle.”
Uddin answered the question as it relates to Shariah law, explaining that the number one victims of oppressive interpretations of Shariah law are Muslims, and that it is not Muslims who are the problem, but the governments that influence these laws. Following, Moghul strongly stated, “Nothing in the world can be explained by a single factor.”
From there, several topics were addressed. Issues ranged from connotation of the term “jihad” to the notion that interpretation and oral traditions are essential to religious texts.
I submitted the question, “Given current discourse and the portrayal of Muslims in the American media, is it even possible to turn US public opinion away from the idea that ‘all Muslims are terrorists’? If so, how? What steps can be taken by both Muslim-Americans as well as non-Muslim Americans to combat Islamophobia?” The topic was mostly addressed, although asked in fewer words and with a stronger emphasis on the role of the media.
Answers to a version of my submitted question included, “We need increased social responsibility,” and that Islam must continue to work on building institutions.
Rabbi Schneier responded, “I believe that the process has begun. The Muslim community is becoming more vocal and learning how to communicate with the media.”
The importance of this issue is tremendous. We have seen progressive movements change societal opinions and behaviors throughout history, but how is it different with contemporary Muslim-Americans? Does the idea that some Muslims have committed evil acts set an unconquerable prejudice beyond the prejudices against other minorities? Can a progressive movement be powerful enough to sway US public opinion on this issue today?