Capitol Hill panel discusses Americans’ misunderstanding of Islam

Members of the Congressional Muslim Staff Association (CMSA) hosted a panel discussion on Capitol Hill Tuesday to discuss the perception of Islam among Americans in the wake of the current debate over the proposed Park51 Islamic center and mosque project to be located just two blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.

The primary point of agreement among all three panel participants was that those who oppose Muslim initiatives — such as the so-called “Ground Zero” mosque — are Islamaphobic and ignorant. A recent CBS poll revealed that 71% of Americans believe it is inappropriate to build a mosque so close to the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Salam Al-Maryati, president of Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), Dr. Azizah Al-Hibri, chairwoman of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, and Dr. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), were the participants on the panel entitled,“Muslims in America: Myths and Realities — A discussion on faith in the wake of the Park 51 Controversy.”

Moderator Suhail Khan, senior fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), kicked off the panel by explaining the uproar the Park51 project has caused and how it has raised a lot of questions and pushed a number of conspiracy theories — theories that had once been relegated to Internet message boards — out into the open. “There are all kinds of accusations that are swirling around,” Khan said. “We thought here we’d assemble a panel of experts to really take on some of these myths.”

Despite an introduction that minimized the importance of the Park51 project to the conversation at hand, Salam Al-Maryati took to the podium to decry the way in which the American public has come to view the project. “The nomenclature of this particular story — it started out as the Ground Zero mosque controversy and I think by now, everybody acknowledges that the place is not at Ground Zero and it is not a mosque,” Al-Maryati said. “It is a few blocks away, where you can’t even see Ground Zero, and it is a community center that was actually intended to develop interfaith dialogue.”

Al-Maryati said that in the wake of these kinds of demonstrations, anti-Islamic sentiment has increased. As an example, he cited a planned 9/11 Koran burning ceremony in Gainsville, Florida. Al-Maryati theorized that the more anti-Islam America appears, the more anti-Americanism will increase abroad. Nonetheless, Al-Maryati concluded that he still feels that “America is the best place for Muslims.”

The lone woman on the panel, Dr. Azizan Al- Hibri, said that Islamaphobia is not a new phenomenon in America. She explained that in her research of the Founding Fathers, she read multiple instances in which there were explicit examples of anti-Muslim views and activities by America’s founders.

Al-Hibri stressed, however, that Muslims are hardly the only minority group that have been demonized in America. She went on to catalogue various groups throughout American history that had been marginalized. “So in some ways I want Muslims to know we are not being singled out one way or the other,” she said.