10 years later, Muslims divided on improving negative image

August 24, 2011

(RNS) After all the books, speeches, seminars, Facebook posts and mosque
open houses to teach Americans about Islam in the wake of 9/11,
Americans say they now know more about Islam than they did 10 years ago.
The problem, pollsters say, is that Americans don't seem to like
what they're learning.

Indeed, the percentage of Americans who say they know some or a
great deal about Islam climbed from 38 percent immediately after 9/11 to
44 percent in 2010, according to the Pew Research Center.

At the same time, Pew polls report, the percentage of Americans
with favorable views of Islam dropped, from 41 percent to 30 percent in
the past five years.

That has left many Muslims exasperated with Islamic advocacy
organizations, and sometimes divided over the best ways to use scant
resources in hopes of improving American perceptions of Islam. Critics
say the numbers prove that education has failed to reduce Islamophobia
among Americans.

"The idea that education will lead to a lessoning of bigotry is just
factually incorrect," said Reza Aslan, an award-winning author who
recently launched a media company, BoomGen Studios, in New York and Los
Angeles that focuses on Muslim and Middle Eastern themes.

Americans "don't care about your religion. They don't want to know
more about Islam," Aslan said Muslim organizations shouldn't eliminate or overlook
education, but argues that more resources should be spent on integrating
Muslims into all aspects of American society -- politics, business,
education, and civic life.

He points to American Jews as a community that was once reviled but
is now respected.

"What happened? Did people learn more about Judaism? No, there
wasn't a concerted effort to teach people about Jewish life or Jewish
religion," said Aslan. "The Jews integrated themselves into American
life to the point that the argument that the Jews aren't American
sounded so stupid, that people stopped thinking it."

Kamran Memon, a civil rights lawyer in Chicago who also heads the
grassroots group Muslims for a Safe America, said education isn't the
problem. Rather, it is the subject matter.

While Muslim Americans are good at talking about Islam's appealing
aspects, Memon said, they haven't addressed legitimate concerns about
Islamic scriptures and beliefs that have been used to justify violence.

"When people are so scared of something, you can't change the
subject, you have to address the issue," Memon said. "Talking about
peace in Islam is like trying to change the subject, and you can't
change the subject when someone asks, `Why are some Muslims trying to
kill us?"'

Muslim groups counter that education does work. Without it, they
say, Islamophobia would be much worse.

"From our experience, education works," said Ashfaq Parkar, a
coordinator for 1-800-Why-Islam, a hotline sponsored by the Islamic
Circle of North America in Queens, N.Y. The hotline fields as many as
600 calls per month. "Many people who call will be confrontational when
they start, but when they conclude, they're sympathetic, or at least
less aggressive."

Maha ElGenaidi, CEO of the Islamic Networks Group in San Jose,
Calif., which trains speakers to talk about Islam in schools, government
and law enforcement agencies, corporations and religious institutions,
also rejected the idea that education isn't working.

"That's not our experience at all," she said. "Just the opposite, in
fact."

ElGenaidi noted that Americans under the age of 30 had more
favorable views of Muslims than older Americans, in part because public
school systems started teaching about Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism in
the 1990s. "Before that, students were not taught anything about Islam
or Muslims."

The problem, Muslim educators say, is that attempts to provide what
they call "positive" knowledge about Islam are often overwhelmed by a
sea of "negative" information that's spread by conservative cable and
talk radio hosts, and the right-wing blogosphere.

"The challenge is the onslaught of negative images, negative
stereotypes," said Nadia Roumani, director of the American Muslim Civic
Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California, "and the
resources and manpower these (Muslim) groups have just don't match up."

The newly resurgent anti-Muslim movement makes education more
important, not less, Muslim educators say. Some experts agree.

Robert P. Jones, whose Washington-based Public Religion Research
Institute has tracked public opinion on Islam, said viewers of Fox News
Channel, for example, were among the most likely to say they felt
informed about Islam.

"They were also four times more likely than others in the population
to have negative views towards Muslims," he said.

Eboo Patel, who directs the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Corps,
which focuses on grooming a new generation of interfaith leaders on
college campuses, said knowledge about Islam feeds directly into
perceptions about Islam.

"If the only thing you know about Islam is Osama bin Laden and the
stoning of women in Afghanistan or Iran, then clearly your attitude
towards Muslims is going to be bad," he said.

"But if you knew that the most common prayer in Islam is `In the
name of God, the all merciful,' your attitude towards Muslims would
probably be a lot better."