Fighting Islamophobia in America

I first heard of this incident by email. Tahera Ahmad, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, was on a Shuttle America flight (a feeder airline for United Airlines) and asked the flight attendant for a can of Diet Coke. She also asked, for hygienic reasons, that it be unopened. The flight attendant refused. When she asked why, the flight attendant said, "Because you could use it as a weapon."

The woman was stunned. She was even more stunned when the same flight attendant gave an unopened can of beer to a male passenger seated near her.  So she told the story on her Facebook page, and it went viral.

Ahmad, 31, is the director of interfaith engagement and associate chaplain at Northwestern University in Illinois. She understands the import of such behavior.

So "Interfaith Voices" decided to use her story on the show this week as a jumping-off point to explore Islamophobia in America. Our guests included two women from the Muslim Public Affairs Council -- Hoda Elshishtawy, national policy analyst, and Riham Osman, communications coordinator -- and Rajdeep Singh from the Sikh Coalition. Sikhs, of course, are not Muslims, but the men wear turbans and are often mistaken for Muslims.  So they, too, fall victim to Islamophobia.

Unfortunately, Islamophobia is all too common these days. The two women from MPAC told of insults of all kinds and women's hijabs being pulled off their heads by hostile people.

I reflected back to the days when I wore identifiable religious garb: a habit. I never experienced insults. Nuns were respected, even revered.  But that reflects the way in which Catholicism was seen in the 20th century.  It was, by then, an accepted religion. However, in the 19th century, Catholics were closer to the position of Muslims today, although the bigotry and hostility were expressed differently. Wearing a habit might have been a bit more problematic in the mid-19th century, especially where the Know-Nothing Party held sway.

But anti-Muslim bigots today do not seem to be swayed either by facts or the teachings about "love thy neighbor" in the Judeo/Christian tradition. They seem totally unable to distinguish terrorists from the vast majority of ordinary Muslims.

On May 29, for example, there was an unprovoked demonstration outside a mosque in Phoenix to which demonstrators were encouraged to carry weapons. Some wore anti-Muslim T-shirts with obscenities on them. Luckily, it did not lead to violence. In fact, a Muslim invited one of the demonstrators inside to pray with the congregation, and he reportedly came out with his attitude totally changed.

Then there is Pamela Geller, a professional Islamophobe, if there is such a thing.  She is president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which is classified as a "hate group" by both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the British government. Her latest move was to launch a contest for drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, which offends Muslims, then offer a prize to the best: placement in the D.C. Metro system. The Metro system responded by canceling all "issue ads," at least for the time being.

And these are just the most visible incidents. They are the reasons interfaith education and dialogue are so important. We need to learn about, and become comfortable with, the great diversity of faith traditions among us. The United States is enriched by that diversity, not threatened.

Listen to the interview

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