An elementary school full of American children, daily locked into their building from the outside because of threats from terrorists to "burn the school down with all the children inside it": a terrifying scenario -- every parent's nightmare -- and one that is frighteningly real for a Minnesota school. The catch? The school, Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, is a public charter school with a Muslim majority and the terrorists (yes, plural) making the threats are homegrown.
Although this particular incident happened in 2008, the fears of the Muslim community have only intensified since then, culminating in a very eye-opening and disturbing discussion moderated by NPR on Sep. 10 to mark the Eid holiday. As a non-Muslim, I will admit a great deal of ignorance on this topic. While I realized that some of my Muslim friends occasionally feel discriminated against, I was surprised to hear the level of fear professed both by American Muslims on the NPR program and my own friends in real life. Surely, I asked one of my best friends who is Muslim, our Muslim neighbors know that for every obnoxiously vocal psycho like Terry Jones there are thousands of us who love, respect and care for them? According to the zeitgeist at her mosque during Eid celebrations, they don't. Another Muslim friend indicated a sincere desire to move back to Lebanon, saying she felt her children would be safer in a developing country with a shaky national government than here in America.
I hate that they feel scared here. I hate that any law-abiding citizen would feel scared here.
With tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim groups heightened because of the anniversary of September 11, the New York City mosque controversy and even the inane debate about President Obama's personal faith, it seems like every day the rhetoric is getting more extreme and more offensive on both sides. The big losers? Our friends, coworkers, neighbors and community members who also happen to be Muslim, which in turn weakens our communities at large. We're not talking about some faceless, shadowy group or cartoon convenience-store owners; we're talking about real people with homes just around the corner, memberships to our gyms and kids in our schools.
So how do we help our Muslim neighbors feel safer?
- Tell them how you feel. I had assumed that everyone, no matter what their political stripe, recognizes nutjob Terry Jones and others of his ilk who pull public Quran-burning stunts as the famewhores that they are. (If a bigot falls alone in a forest, does he make a sound?) But apparently we haven't been loud enough in getting that message across. I'm afraid that our Muslim neighbors are interpreting our silence as agreement. Moderates of all camps -- both Muslim and non -- need to be more vocal if we're going to drown out the fear-mongering extremists.
- Ask questions. Think you "know" that Islam represses all women? Ask a Muslim woman about that. Do you "know" that all Muslim schools are terrorist madrassas? Ask a local Muslim school administrator or parent. Confused about some of their customs, like why some women wear the hijab while others wear the burqa and still others wear nothing distinguishing? Just ask. They know what our fears are and most are very open about talking about them. Fear is a powerful motivator, and it seems like all of us have reason enough to feel it these days; the only way to overcome it is to get it out in the open.
- Treat them how you would want to be treated. It's so obvious that one wouldn't think it bears repeating, but all of us could use a little lesson in civility sometimes. Whether it's road rage at the grandma driving 35 m.p.h. on the highway, anger over a proposed mosque site, or righteous superiority at Paris Hilton's drug arrest, we could all bear to repeat "There but for the grace of God (or Allah), go I." A little understanding goes a long way.
Okay, maybe not in the case of Paris. I don't think anyone understands mistaking cocaine for chewing gum.