Bridging Western-Muslim Relations: Addressing Islamophobia and All Forms of Intolerance

By Yasmina Mrabet and Kimberly Weichel of Peace X Peace, an international women’s peacebuilding and leadership organization dedicated to building bridges between cultures and raising women’s voices. Their program Connection Point links Arab, Muslim and western women in a vibrant online forum.
Kim and Yasmina were featured in the Summer of Peace

When we describe our work, one question we never get asked is why bridging Western-Muslim relations is needed. Persistent misunderstanding between Muslim and Western communities can be harmful, divisive and lead to conflict. One of the causes of mistrust and tense relations is pervasive stereotypes, which we have seen can lead to open displays of violence and hatred against Muslim communities within Western nations like the United States. Some of those stereotypes and misunderstandings include:

  • Not all Arabs are Muslim, and not all Muslims are Arab. Indonesia has a larger Muslim population than any other country in the world but the people are Asian, not Arab. Niger is Muslim but they are Africans, not Arabs. Lebanon is an Arab country, but an estimated 35-45% of its population is Christian.
  • Islam teaches principles of peace, tolerance, and justice. It has many similarities with Christianity and Judaism, and shares many of the same prophets. It is also the world’s fastest growing religion and the second largest religion after Christianity.
  • Popular culture and mass media in the United States have generated and sustained stereotypes of a monolithic evil Arab; these stereotypes constructed all Muslims as Arab and all Arabs as terrorists. Using representations and language in news, movies, cartoons, and magazine stories, the media and popular culture have participated in the construction of an evil Arab stereotype that encompasses a wide variety of people, ideas, beliefs, religions, and assumptions
  • Mainstream media have also depicted Arab and Muslim women as oppressed, silent, and submissive, rarely highlighting their success and contributions to society, of which there are many. Check out our Connection Point blog to read some in women’s own words.

We are concerned about these stereotypes with good reason. In 2002 Human Rights Watch reported hate crimes against Muslims or those perceived to be Muslims rose drastically after 2001—“they became victims of a severe wave of backlash violence” (p. 3). Their research finds that “Ultimately, prevention of anti-Arab violence will require an ongoing national commitment to tolerance, respect for multicultural diversity, and recognition that ‘guilt by association’ has no place in the United States.”

According to the Pew Research Center, between July 2005 and August 2010, the percentage of Americans who hold unfavorable views of Islam has risen from an already high 36% to 38%. Additionally, 35% of Americans hold the view that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence. Finally, the same study finds that 25% (of Americans) believe that local communities in the United States should be able to prohibit construction of mosques if they do not want them.

And, as recently as 2011, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung published a study finding that approximately 50% of Europeans say that Islam is a religion of intolerance. This is especially disconcerting considering the fact that Muslims in Europe comprise the second largest religious community in Europe.

How do we address the ongoing problem of Islamophobia? At Peace X Peace we are strong advocates of dialogue. We believe that bringing people together for intercultural and interfaith exchange is a first step in healing and transforming relationships between Muslim and Western communities. At a recent cross cultural dialogue in Washington, D.C., Muslim women shared painful and embarrassing stories of discrimination experienced in the United States. From this deep sharing emerged ideas on different ways to create change through person-to-person dialogue, education, and the exchange of information.

It became clear that silence and blind rage to these Islamophobic incidences are not  constructive responses, since often it is a result of ignorance or stereotypes. Showing compassion, providing education and understanding are helpful to shift the situation, although in more extreme cases recommendations were to engage with perpetrators directly regarding their discriminatory ideology and to unearth what forms the basis of their stereotypes. The meeting was concluded by committing to continue the dialogue and to seek ways of combating Islamophobia and to ensure that no acts of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice happen in our space. What we know for sure is that allowing one group or person to be discriminated against makes everyone vulnerable.

Creating a peaceful society that celebrates diversity and multiculturalism requires hard work on the part of all members of a given society. We each have individual responsibility to reach out to others who are different from us, and to form relationships and friendships in celebration of each other’s faith, culture and tradition.

What will you do to reach out to members of a culture or faith you are unfamiliar with? What will you do to help us build a peaceful society?

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This article appears in: 2013 Catalyst - Issue 16