Muslims in America seek understanding
Monday, February 22, 2010
By GAIL SCHONTZLER Chronicle Staff Writer
Nine years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many Americans still fear Muslims and ask the question, “Why do they hate us?”
Hussam Ayloush, 40, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles, dealt with the question Monday at Montana State University as keynote speaker a day-long conference, Islam in America, sponsored by the MSU Muslim Students Association.
Former President George Bush’s answer that terrorists hate us because of “our freedoms” is obviously wrong, Ayloush said during a panel discussion. The reason Muslims around the world have problems with the United States is because of our policies, not our values, he said. Their No. 1 grievance is the plight of the Palestinian people, as the 9/11 Commission concluded.
Most people deal with grievances in legitimate ways, like lobbying or sending relief supplies, Ayloush said. Unfortunately, a few “deviant” Muslims, like Al Qaeda terrorists, have embraced violence and misinterpret Islam to justify it.
Ayloush argued it makes no more sense to fear and condemn all Muslims for the “tragic” 9/11 attacks by a few terrorists than to fear and condemn all Christians because a few fundamentalists have killed abortion doctors. Lots of people dislike the IRS, but most don’t fly planes into buildings and kill innocent people, as just happened in Texas, he added.
Today there are up to 8 million Muslims living in the United States, including immigrants from many nations, their American children, foreign students, engineers, auto workers and African-Americans. There are two Muslims in Congress, and 10,000 in the U.S. military. Muslims in American probably enjoy more rights to practice their religion here than anywhere else, he said.
An immigrant himself, Ayloush left Lebanon as a teenager for America, studied engineering and became a U.S. citizen. He said he believes America has “the best man-designed political system on earth,” which lets people debate and dissent.
“It’s worth fighting for, defending and celebrating,” he said.
But many American Muslims, he added, feel “like second-class citizens,” who are demonized on TV as “the enemy.”
About a quarter of the world’s people, 1.6 billion, are Muslims, and they are very diverse. Only about 18 percent are Arabs and fit the stereotype many Americans hold.
The world’s Muslims don’t fit our stereotype of hating America either. In every Muslim country’s capital, people line up at 2 a.m. to get visas to come to America, he said. They proudly display the diplomas they’ve earned at American universities in their homes or offices.
Since the 9/11 attacks and 2006 London subway bombings, CAIR has collected on its Web site messages of condemnation by hundreds of Muslim leaders and scholars from all over the world.
“We need to emphasize humanizing one another,” Ayloush said. “We need to insist again and again to reject hate-mongering.”
American attitudes may be slowly changing, said panel member David Grimland, a retired U.S. Information Agency spokesman who worked in U.S. embassies from Turkey to Bangladesh and now lives in Montana.
Grimland cited a Pew poll that in 2007 found 58 percent of Americans thought Islam was more likely to encourage violence than other faiths. By 2009, that had fallen to 38 percent.
Still, there are e-mail messages all over the Internet that spread a “twisted, aggressive, hateful, phobic” view of Islam, Grimland said.
“They take one or two spoonfuls of truth, a few cups of innuendo,” add it to “outright lies and disinformation” and end up with the fearful message that “this is a religious war against America,” Grimland said.
It’s vital that Americans learn to understand, not fear, Islam, he said.
Panel member Tim Spring, Lutheran pastor at Christus Collegium, said Christianity and Islam share common values of caring for the poor, the hungry and powerless.
MSU electrical engineering student Monther Abusultan, a Palestinian and head of the Muslim Students Association, said the two goals of the annual conference are to help Montanans feel comfortable with Islam, and to help Muslims not feel afraid to feel accepted. In general, he said, people in Bozeman accept difference cultures.
“They’re friendly,” he said.
Gail Schontzler can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2633.
- Hussam Ayloush
- Hussam has been a lifelong human rights activist who is passionate about promoting democratic societies, in the US and worldwide, in which all people, including immigrants, workers, minorities, and the poor enjoy freedom, justice, economic justice, respect, and equality. Mr. Ayloush frequently lectures on Islam, media relations, civil rights, hate crimes and international affairs. He has consistently appeared in local, national, and international media. Full biography at: http://hussamayloush.blogspot.com/2006/08/biography-of-hussam-ayloush.html