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Dialogue Through Arts: American Muslims Face Intolerance, Cope Creatively

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The pervasive intolerance, discrimination and violence confronting American Muslims more than a decade after 9/11 hardly comes as a shock to anyone these days.

In fact, according to a 2011 Gallup Research Study, approximately one-half of nationally representative samples of Mormons, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims and Jews agree that the majority of Americans are biased toward American Muslims. Sadly, bias-based school bullying, religiously motivated employment discrimination, anti-Muslim hate crimes and opposition to benign mosque construction and expansion projects have become the new, unfortunate "normal."

What may come as a surprise to some, however, are the creative responses American Muslims are adopting to cope with and counter such bias.

Meet Aymann Ismail, a 22-year-old American Muslim artist who currently resides in Brooklyn, N.Y. Ismail is a filmmaker who has been involved with video since the age of 15, when he discovered his love for art in high school. A medium of communication, film means a lot more to him, however, than a source of entertainment; rather, it is a tool for combating ignorance and undermining anti-Muslim stereotypes.

"Being a Muslim in America means you are part of a very tightly knit community that is under attack constantly," Ismail observed. "Whether it be on television dramas or the news, Muslims are painted in a light that makes them look violent and uncivil ... I am proud that I am both a Muslim and an American, and I want to use my talents as an artist to help change the minds of as many Americans as possible who have false information about Muslims."

In addition to confronting flawed perceptions, Ismail also strives to use his artistic ability to create genuine dialogue to bridge the narrative gap between communities here, and across the world.

"Islamaphobia has really gripped the public and everyone seems to be afraid of some kind of Islamic invasion," he says. "I hope to open people's eyes and show them that as Americans, we are just as afraid of terrorism and do not condone violence, just as much as any other American."

Illustrative of this earnest desire to create beneficial dialogue within our global human family is the following almost seven-minute video: https://vimeo.com/16696682.

In it, Ismail interviews college students around the Rutgers University campus in New Jersey about Muslims and Americans, highlighting a few cultural and religious problem areas. For instance, Ismail asked students, selected at random, "Do you guys know the differences between being a Muslim and being an Arab?"

Unfortunately, many struggled to draw a distinction between the two.

When asked, "What are the stereotypes you hear [around] these terms," students responded almost on cue, "All Muslims and Arab people are terrorists," "Turbans and beards," "Lots of clothing for women," "Deserts," "Extremists, beneath you" and "Very conservative, very traditional."

Notably, more than one student identified the media as the primary source reinforcing such negative perceptions, while another cited FOX News as a particular source of consternation.

Next, Ismail conducted a similar interview in pre-Revolution Egypt. Among other inquiries, he questioned young Egyptian males (similarly chosen at random) about their views of Americans and our country. Responses frequently focused on democracy, education and technology.

"I interviewed Egyptians about how they feel about their own country and what their opinion is about Americans," he explained. "Combined, it is a dialogue between the West and the Middle East. And that is exactly what needs to happen in our country to expel these stereotypes: dialogue."

Significantly, Ismail then used the comparative footage to facilitate precisely that -- a candid exchange -- at a Rutgers-sponsored event attended by more than 100 faculty members and students.

A robust Q & A ensued.

"Everyone was so curious as to how these Egyptians weren't screaming 'Death to the Infidels' and 'Death to America,'" he recalls. "Everyone asked questions about daily life, and the role of Islam in a country like Egypt, and how it has been preserved in the Muslim community here in America. Dialogue is the first step in dispelling ignorance."

If you haven't already, take a moment to watch Ismail's footage.

To be sure, perceptions matter -- they inform public opinion and may manifest themselves in harmful actions, such as incidents of bias, hate or even violence against innocents. Ultimately, the dialogue envisioned by Ismail is one effective means of enhancing intercultural understanding, preventing and resolving conflict and promoting peace initiatives, here and abroad. This is particularly true of our classrooms, which are natural learning environments.

Rutgers should be applauded for sponsoring such an exchange and other institutions, including high schools, should emulate the Rutgers model by fostering and facilitating candid, age-specific inter-cultural exchanges -- regularly.

I incorporate high schools by design: Last Spring, I was asked to conduct a female empowerment workshop in Manhattan. The workshop's participants consisted of approximately 25 young American Muslim girls hailing from New York's five boroughs, and ranging in age from 12 to 20. Notably, all but one attendee donned a Hijab.

When asked by a show of hands how many had experienced an act of discrimination or had been otherwise bullied in school, they looked perplexed until one asked aloud, "Do you mean being called a terrorist?" Upon responding in the affirmative, all of the participants raised their hands. When asked if they had related the incident to a parent, family member or school administrator, none of the participants reported doing so. When asked why, they explained, "No one is going to do anything about it," and "We get called 'terrorist' all the time," while describing additional instances of harassment experienced in delis, at gas stations, on the street and other places of public accommodation.

Time and again, while engaging with Muslim youth at schools, universities and community forums, a common anecdotal thread characterizing their ultimate educational experience is underreported bias-based bullying and otherwise discriminatory incidents at school. The statistics barely glimpse the prejudice endemic to the Muslim educational experience.

Hence, the urgency underlying dialogue and cross-cultural education.

Moreover, these conversations should be all inclusive in our increasingly multicultural societies -- meaning, they should not just center on the themes highlighted within Ismail's footage but educational exchanges should also encompass other minority racial, ethnic and religious groups whose interests and narratives are frequently underrepresented, misunderstood or distorted in mainstream discourse.

And what better way to begin the conversation than through art?

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