A rabbi, a Roman Catholic, and the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Council of American Islamic Relations walk into the Scheuer Room. Perhaps surprisingly, given their backgrounds, they give a talk on Islamophobia backed with empiricism and personal experience, and they focus on how people of different religions can try to mitigate Islamophobia by making more Muslim friends and making sincere efforts to engage with them.
Jacob Bender, apart from leading the Council of American Islamic Relations, recently directed the award-winning film Out of Cordoba, which documents the lives of a Jewish and Muslim philosopher. He has published numerous articles on Muslim-West relations and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Jordan Times, and the Gulf News.
In his introductory remarks, Bender gave some historical context to relations between Jews and Muslims, pointing out that for much of history, the language spoken by Jews was not Yiddish or Hebrew, but Arabic. In more practical terms, he noted that “bigotry can be fought legally and politically, but it can also be fought by people sharing history on a local, intimate level. It is by getting to know one another that we can overcome the hatred that seeps into the human heart.”
The second panelist was Michael J. Braeuninger, the Director of Development and Outreach for the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy and the . He focused on the internal forces of fear of the other which fuel Islamophobia, citing the fact that Islamophobia drops by 75% when a person knows a Muslim.
“An important part of peacebuilding is keeping a keen eye on your internal sense of conflict and being mindful and learning something about yourself along the way. It will go a long way to refine the quality of your work and the quality of your relationships,” Braeuninger said.
The third panelist was Rabbi Nancy Kramer, the director of an associate professor of Religious Studies at the Reconstructionist College of Rabbinical Studies. In her introductory remarks, Kramer spoke about her religious education and how after 9/11, she realized her studies were inadequate for understanding the Muslim experience. “Once I sat on a panel with a Muslim, I realized I had no idea what Muslims wanted, and that I had a lot of work to do,” she said. This motivated her to create a course where her students would gather Muslim peers to go out and speak in the Jewish community about their experience.
Through these talks, she learned a lot about what it means for both Jewish-Americans and Muslim-Americans to “negotiate the hyphen.” She found that both groups shared many of the same questions: “Do we send our children to the local public school or a private religious school? How do we deal with the gendered issues of our respective religions?”
What is interesting is that we are currently in a historical moment when the relationship between Jews and Muslims is fraught with conflict, whereas Jews and Christians have been getting along relatively well. This is a stark departure from most of history, when the reverse was the case: in the past, Jews have been safest and most comfortable living in Muslim societies rather than Christian societies.
Kramer pointed out that surprisingly, the percentage of Muslims and Jews living in the United States is roughly the same: 1.5% of the total population, or roughly 5 to 7 million people. However, there are two large differences between the two groups: Firstly, the average Jew is older than the average American and the average Muslim is younger. This means that within 10 years, studies predict there will likely be more Muslims than Jews, given that the Jewish population is aging.
Secondly, Americans tend to view Jews much more favorably than Muslims. Kramer referenced a 2014 Pew study that asked participants to rate different religious groups based on a feeling thermometer to gauge which groups are the most- and least-liked among them. The results, shown below, demonstrate that on a scale of 0 (most negative) to 100 (most positive), Jews ranked the highest, around 63, while Muslims ranked the lowest, at 40.
Kramer attributed these negative feelings towards Muslims in part to a small number of organizations spreading misinformation about American Muslims and Islam. A report called “Fear, Inc.,” published by the Center for American Progress, found that there are 7 main organizations disseminating this false rhetoric, and chief among them is Fox News.
In response to these concerning findings, Kramer suggested three steps we can take to try to mitigate these forces of anti-Muslim prejudice: first, we need to educate ourselves about Muslims because it is exhausting for Muslims to always take it upon themselves to educate non-Muslims about their culture and debunk the stereotypes spread by sources of misinformation. Second, we can make more Muslim friends (“How many of you have a Muslim friend with whom you have had a conversation in the past 6 months?”). Third, “we need to show up.” We need to be present at the rallies, the protests, and the vigils.
The takeaway message of the evening seemed to be one of exposure and engagement as a means of mitigating Islamophobia. The talk by no means had any goals of finding a “solution” to Islamophobia, but sought to offer some tactics that might improve American attitudes towards Muslims.
Many audience members came away with a general sense of admiration and gratitude that the speakers were able to approach the sensitive issue of Islamophobia from a place of empathy with an interfaith lens.
Zain Talukdar ‘19 said, “I really applaud the panelists. […] They wanted to bring out a more empathetic tone towards Muslims; they wanted the people who sat here today to think about what it means to be a Muslim. And people did passionately turn to the Muslims in the room to see what their reactions were, sitting down to [listen to] an Islamophobia panel. I thought it was great, I really thought it was accepting.”
To give some contrast between the atmosphere created by this panel and what he is used to at home, Talukdar gave some examples from his own life as a Muslim in South Florida: “When I was in New York City living in Queens in 6th grade about to move back to Florida, my friend’s grandpa told me not to tell [other people] that I’m Muslim. ‘Tell them that you’re Indian, tell them that you’re Guyanese.’ I thought, ‘Why would I do that? I’m going to tell them who I am.’ I am proud that I stuck to who I was, but I can certainly understand what he meant because, especially in schools, the students [in Florida] have been raised with the political ideologies of their parents, and these people think that Muslims are exactly what embodies 9/11.”
Hamza Hashim ‘18, the moderator of the talk, was also pleased with what the panelists had to say. He found it helpful to think of Islamophobia from an interfaith perspective: “I think the particular interfaith cooperation perspective was valuable because most Muslims don’t see it like that. When I as a Muslim think about Islamophobia, I think about how I perceive myself as a victim, but this talked about a greater alliance along interfaith lines to deal with the problem, which I think is an issue that not a lot of Muslims think about.”