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Groups Work to Break Down Stereotypes of Islam in US - 2003-03-10


Many Muslims in the United States are concerned about what they consider to be a rising tide of misunderstanding of Islam worldwide. In response, some private groups have launched advertising and educational campaigns they hope will improve Islam's image.

Luby Ismail said there are stereotypes that some Americans have of Muslim women who wear the traditional hijab to cover their heads: "Foreigner, does not speak English, uneducated, submissive, oppressed, not my friend, un-American and of course, after September 11, terrorist," she said.

Luby Ismail, senior trainer at Connecting Cultures, a Maryland-based company that offers programs to promote understanding across cultures, describes one of the company's training drills, called "the veil exercise."

"The group comes in. They see me and I am wearing a Hijab and I am not speaking," she said. "Then I begin the training not by talking but by writing. The question I write is what are some of the assumptions that exist about women like me, based on my dress? First, people are kind of taken aback. They are not sure how honest they should be, but I wait and they start to say or write on the board some of the stereotypes. I've had some people say, 'Wow, you made me see how I stereotype and I make misassumptions about you and perhaps other women like you, just based on this piece of cloth on their head.'" Ms. Ismail explained.

From there, Ms. Ismail and the group look at other stereotypes.

"For example, that most Muslims in the world are Arab, and that is not the case. That all Arabs are Muslims, that is not the case. That no Muslim is inherently American, that is not the case. You know there are from five to seven million Muslims in this country. Myself, I was born and raised here. Of course, I have so many ties with my heritage and roots back in Egypt, but I am American," she said. The Connecting Cultures training program is just one of the efforts being made by various groups to change negative public attitudes about Islam. The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, recently launched a year-long "Islam in America" advertising campaign.

"We decided as Muslims in America to speak for ourselves and not let extremists define the religion for us, the faith of one billion people around the world and seven million people in the United States," said Nihad Awad, the CAIR board chairman.

The campaign started on February 16, 2003 with an advertisement in The New York Times headlined "We're All Americans." The ad features three different Muslims: an African-American girl, an Asian-American man, and a European-American man, telling their personal stories as American citizens and Muslims. The second ad features the members of the Santa Clara, California, Muslim Girl Scout troop indicating that American values such as service, charity and tolerance are the same values that Muslims are taught to uphold in their daily lives.

Mr. Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said these ads are designed to give the average reader the opportunity to see the cultural diversity among Muslims and the local face of Islam in America. He said Muslim Americans are a diverse group of people with varied nationalities and ethnic backgrounds.

Among them are immigrants from across the globe who came to America seeking freedom and opportunity, as well as children of immigrants, and converts to Islam.

Mr. Awad believes that Muslim-Americans' support is essential for this campaign to succeed. "This campaign will succeed when community leaders around the country download these images and these ads in different format and publish them in the local newspapers," he said.

As a Muslim American, Professor Khalid Abu Alfadhl of the UCLA School of Law is also concerned about widespread misunderstanding of Islam. But as a law professor, he looks at the image problem from a historical perspective. He says Muslims are not the only minority group in America to have faced hostility.

"During the major Jewish migration to the United States, which was in the 1800s, there was widespread hostility towards Jews. Also Chinese Americans had a very negative image in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In fact, there used to be laws in the United States known as the Chinese Exclusion laws that prohibited Chinese individuals from either becoming citizens or from ever immigrating to the United States. There was also a wave of racist hostility towards Catholic migration to the U.S, and against the Japanese around World War II," Mr. Abu Alfadhl said.

UCLA Professor Abu Alfadhl said those groups successfully managed to alter their negative image as they gradually assumed positions of influence and leadership. Although other groups have overcome prejudice, Professor Abu Alfadhl believes Muslim Americans have an added difficulty - their historical legacy. He said because Muslims and Christians have fought in years past, some people believe they might always be enemies. Professor Abu Alfadhl sees CAIR's "Islam in America" ad campaign as a well-intended initiative, but he doubts it will make a significant difference in how Islam is viewed by non-Muslims.

The campaign "could be effective with some individuals who are indeterminate. Things like books or articles published in the mainstream magazine that have the appearance of objectivity sway readers," he said. "People are very much swayed by what they hear or see on radio and the type of sympathetic programming that could happen on TV. All these are things that affect the way people construct an image of the other."

Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said he is enthusiastic about the campaign. He hopes that with more donations from Muslim Americans, the ad campaign will expand from print media to radio and television.

"We believe it will be very productive because we've conducted focus groups and we come to understand what readers need and like to hear and learn about Islam. We do provide this information. We do not shy away from political and sensitive issues that have to be discussed," Mr. Awad said.

Mr. Awad conceded that changing negative stereotypes about Islam can't be done overnight. But he said you have to begin somewhere.

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