Posted by on August 31, 2010 in Blog

Today, AAI president Jim Zogby joined a panel of experts on Capitol Hill to discuss the image of Muslims in America. The event was sponsored by the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association (CMSA), introduced by the association’s president Assad Akhter, and moderated by Suheil Khan, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement and a former Bush administration political appointee. In addition to the three panelists, approximately 75 people were in attendance.


Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), highlighted the misinformation that has recently circulated about Islam and the Park 51 Muslim community center in lower Manhattan. Al-Marayati criticized the popular terminology used for the center as “the ground zero mosque” when, in reality, it’s “blocks away where you can’t even see ground zero.” Al-Marayati expressed concern about the rising anti-Muslim sentiment throughout the US, and particularly the “Burn a Quran Day” event planned in Florida, which he warned would provide recruiting materials for anti-American extremists outside the US. “As anti-Muslim sentiment spikes here in America, then you can expect a spike of anti-American sentiment abroad”. Al-Marayati also spoke about the challenges moderates face in getting their message out in the mainstream compared to extremists: if an extremist “in some cave” makes a tape preaching hate and violence, then “you get that video played over and over again in all US markets”, while the ongoing efforts of American Muslims to build partnerships and contribute to US national security goes unnoticed.

Azizah Al-Hibri, chair of KARAMA: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, noted that anti-Muslim sentiment is not a new phenomenon, and can be traced as far back as the 18th century in the US. She also noted the similarities between the Muslim experience in the US today, and that of Jews, Catholics, and many others who experienced exclusion or prejudice before being fully accepted as part of American society. Al-Hibri called on the public to “reassert our commitment to the 1st amendment” and to pursue understanding through dialogue: “I do not want us to push anything under the rug”, “let’s have an honest and healthy discussion.” She also noted Islam’s historical compatibility with democracy, citing the democratic principles found in Islamic Law.

Jim shared anecdotes of American Muslims-their individual struggles and aspirations in the US. He cited polls that show a correlation between Muslim and Catholic-American values, indicating similar opinions on healthcare and education as well as conservative tendencies on social issues. Dr. Zogby also talked about the diversity of the American-Muslim community, which consists of many ethnicities: African Americans, Arabs, South Asians, Turks, and others.

Jim criticized the influence of anti-Muslim “experts” who have been invited to discuss Islam on prominent media outlets and congressional hearings. “The lies they told and the bigotry that they spread were horrific,” he said, “yet people were just nodding in the audience because that’s all they heard.” He also noted a troubling shift in American attitudes toward Islam in recent years since September 11th. Immediately following the attacks, he said, Americans were more interested in learning about Islam, but that attitude has changed. American interest in learning about Islam has withered by a substantial margin. What follows, he explained, is a heightened sense of false knowledge, doubled with a lack of motivation to educate oneself on the true nature and beliefs of the Islamic faith. What has ensued is a perpetually negative view of Islam. “Ignorance and certitude are probably the most dangerous combination of all,” he said.

The panel closed with Jim highlighting the unique differences in the immigrant experience between the US and Europe. While many ethnic groups continue to be viewed as outsiders in many European countries regardless of citizenship, in America, he said, “you don’t just get a passport…you get an identity” and become an integral part of society. “That’s who we are as a country.” He went on to conclude:

"What is at stake in this Park 51 story is not about a building… it’s about the narrative of who we are as a people… But if these [anti-Muslim forces] win, then America won’t be America anymore… and that would be devastating to the social fabric of our country."

To watch the full briefing, including the Q&A session, Click here.