Washington, DC, USA - Although negative stories of Islamophobia in the United States abound in news media, most Americans respect religious diversity. That’s why on Sunday, June 26, thousands of people across America joined together at dozens of churches and other houses of worship across the country. Congregants united to do far more than read Christian scriptures; from Alabama to Alaska, from California to New York, worshippers also heard the words of Jewish and Muslim sacred texts as rabbis and imams joined pastors in leading an event called Faith Shared.
A joint project of Human Rights First and the Interfaith Alliance, Faith Shared brought Americans together to counter the anti-Muslim bigotry and negative stereotypes that have erupted throughout the country in the past few years and led to misconceptions, distrust and, in some cases, even violence.
If I were living in a Muslim-majority country, I might think the United States is filled with people burning the Quran, demonizing Islamic beliefs and tarring all Muslims as supporters of radicalism and terrorism. To the casual observer, the anti-Islam fervor of late would seem to bear that out, but the truth is far more complicated.
It is true that in recent years the United States has seen a disturbing trend of anti-Muslim violence, discrimination and rhetoric, as well as a general lack of understanding about Islam. We’ve seen Quran burnings, individuals attacked only because they are Muslim, a pipe bomb explosion at an Islamic community center in Florida and a surge in reported cases of discrimination against Muslims in workplaces and schools throughout the country.
But those incidents – all of which have grabbed headlines – don’t represent the views of so many Americans who respect religious freedom and the diversity of faiths that freedom brings. In fact, a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that more than 60 percent of Americans believe that Muslims are an important part of the American religious community, with strong agreement across political and religious lines. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently released a report showing that much of the hatred directed toward Muslims has been stirred up by a small but influential group of activists and media.
Discussions about the role of Islam and Muslims in American life have all too often degenerated into stereotypes and hatred. If not challenged, these can undermine respect for the religious freedom of all Americans and weaken our resilience as a nation.
And the concerns go beyond our country. What happens in the United States with respect to the treatment of Muslims, rightly or wrongly, has a huge impact overseas on the perception of the country in general, and on U.S. efforts to promote human rights abroad.
It’s imperative for the international community to support efforts to create responsive governments – those that give equal rights to members of all minorities, protect religious freedoms and allow for the freedoms of expression and assembly. The United States can and should play a key role in supporting those efforts.
For that reason, it’s vital to recognize that what happens in the United States – how Americans protect human rights and religious freedoms and how they deal with security issues in relation to the Muslim community – influences how the international community perceives the American people’s commitment to promoting democracy. A message of respect among religious groups in the United States, one that says anti-Muslim fervor is only a small part of the American story, will strengthen that commitment in the eyes of many.
As we continue in this effort, my colleagues and I are not naive about the challenges that can divide America along religious lines. Muslims are not alone among Americans in terms of bearing the brunt of stereotypes and hatred. Indeed, with the Faith Shared services, we sent and will continue to send a clear message: Despite the challenges, the way forward must begin with respect.
We cannot solve these problems in a day but on June 26, Americans across the country showed that we respect religious differences and reject the demonization of any religion. Americans are a nation not of the few who burn Qurans and incite hatred, but of the many who fully embrace religious freedom, tolerance and pluralism.