How could 1.5 billion people and a faith that's thousands of years old be so easily felled in one search? When 60 percent of Americans do not know another Muslim, why are many Americans afraid of Muslims?
It's precisely this ignorance, not necessarily bigotry, that's opened the door for fear-mongering from extremists of all stripes. For Americans, it's a familiar story. Substitute the terms "black," "Jewish," "Japanese," or "gay" for Muslim, and you know what comes next—an often small but powerful group attempts to narrowly define the American experience in mutually exclusive terms (i.e., you can't be Muslim and American; to be one is to be opposed to the other).
To dismantle Islamophobia, playwright and humorist Wajahat Ali says we need a plurality of voices, more storytelling—the Muslim-American equivalent to Angels in America or The Cosby Show. Ali reminded the audience that 25 percent of the people brought to the United States as slaves were Muslim and that African-American Muslim experiences also get short shrift in conversations about Islam.
The reality is, there are tons of unglamorous stories of Muslims living in America, said Reverend Chloe Breyer: "There are the mosques on 161st Street that run HIV/AIDS outreach, the Catholics and Muslims working together in the Bronx to run halal soup kitchens. It's these very practical and mundane things that are moving groups out of isolation and into the broader community."
The panel suggested non-Muslims need to seek personal, everyday connections with Muslim-Americans and encouraged more Muslim-Americans to share their stories and engage civically. Public engagement may be a challenge to Muslim-Americans, Tarin noted, in part because many of those first-generationers left countries intolerant to civic action. As a school community, this might mean considering more direct outreach and invitations for Muslim families to participate in PTA or other activities.
For anyone interested in challenging Islamaophobia, or just wanting to better know their fellow Americans, you don't have to wait for information about Muslim-Americans from secondary sources. October 17–24 is open mosque week—an opportunity for coalition building that can really be flexed at any time (you need not be Muslim to visit your local mosque).
In conclusion, the panel urged openness to a plurality of Muslim-American stories, voices, and identities. Reach out to Muslims in your community, and never accept a singular vision of the American experience. In the words of Muslim-American Muhammed Ali, "Me, we."