For the past four years, the Inside Islam project has been one of a few creative initiatives educating Americans about Islam as part of the Academia in the Public Sphere program. The idea is a good one, encouraging resource-wealthy institutions to interact with the larger public on contemporary and relevant issues. And we aren’t the only project trying to educate, connect, and facilitate dialogue around both controversial issues and more mundane topics related to Islam and Muslims. Muslimah Media Watch, Muslim Matters, and Loonwatch are some of the other active web-based platforms writing about Islam and Muslims. More recently, Crash Course and other internet-based learning tools are reaching out. In only three days, over 100,000 people viewed Crash Course’s latest video on the early history of Islam and Muslims. Click below to see it for yourself.
However, although Inside Islam, Crash Course, and others are educating Americans about the diversity of Muslims and Islam, there is no substitute for real life experience. Personally knowing a Muslim is more valuable and effective in dispelling fears about Islam and Muslims than any fact sheet or list of books on Islam.
A substantial decrease in hatred and fear toward Muslims and Islam will have to originate from increased interactions between people, not just from online blogs or YouTube videos. The field of psychology tells us that it would likely take a sizable shift in mainstream western media’s portrayal of Muslims in order to change most non-Muslim’s negative perceptions of Islam. A grassroots approach–combined with a smaller shift in media tone–is likely to be much more effective.
If you’re reading this as a Muslim, consider going out of your way to meet more non-Muslims in your daily life. Whether it’s at the grocery store, a sporting event, or the local park, make an intentional effort to reach out to non-Muslim community members; even if that means just giving an extra smile or head-nod to those in your workplace.
If you’re a non-Muslim who has Muslim friends, think about introducing other groups of friends to your Muslim friends. Have a cookout, hold an ice cream social or a movie marathon of your favorite film series. One simple event over a few snacks at your house could be the only bridge that some people may have to interact with Muslims in a genuine social setting. You may not think it’s a big deal because you have Muslim friends and you’re aware that they’re people just like everybody else. But it may be an eye-opening experience for some of your friends who haven’t had any substantive interactions with Muslims in their life.
If you’ve yet to meet a Muslim, whether due to your geographic location or simply the lack of opportunity, online initiatives like this one can be quite helpful in getting started. On our Inside Islam radio shows, Jean learned about amazing interfaith service projects that are reshaping communities across the globe. The 2011 Hours Against Hate project was so successful that it has continued another year, and volunteering as part of 2012 Hours Against Hate is another great way for anyone to meet people of different faith backgrounds.
And yet, despite myriad interfaith efforts in the US and elsewhere, sometimes it’s hard not to be cynical about raising awareness about Muslims and Islam. A number of well-funded and organized hate groups continue to falsely portray Islam in a negative light and its believers as threats to a peaceful world order. But the willfully ignorant have been around since the beginning, and unfortunately they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
Thus it is important to remember that hate groups do not represent the majority of people, in America, among Muslims, or anywhere in the world. Most Americans who have had limited personal interaction with Muslims have negative feelings towards Islam and Muslims, but are nowhere near embracing an active hatred. It is this majority group of people who would most benefit from getting to know Muslims on a personal level. Instead of their views on Islam being predominately shaped by what are largely prejudicial and uninformed media conglomerates, perceptions could be influenced by personal interactions and relationships with real-life Muslims.
Can a single personal relationship alter one’s perceptions of an entire group of people? Have your own views of religious groups been altered by a single interaction with someone from that faith tradition? What will it take for mainstream western media’s framing of Muslims to shift to one of factual accuracy and greater nuance? Please share your thoughts below.