Capitol Hill panel discusses Americans’ misunderstanding of Islam

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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.
Al-Hibri lamented the false information that she says is fueling American ignorance about Islam. According to Al-Hibri, the Koran is a freeing document that even incorporates the principles of the First Amendment. “Historically Islamic communities have practiced religious tolerance. This is nothing new. It did not start with the United States,” she said.

Dr. James Zogby was exasperated that he was having to have another “conversation” about Islam, as he said that it feels as though he is always having to explain the faith after a crisis due to American overreaction and misunderstanding.

Zogby chalked the current Park51 turmoil up to a misunderstanding perpetuated by various pundits and experts who appear on radio and television, and who write misleading books about Islam — however, when pressed, Zogby shied away from naming names. “What troubles me is that what is at stake with this Park51 story is that it is not about a building and its not about a place,” Zogby said. “It is about the narrative of who we are as a people, and if these guys win, whatever the outcome, but if these guys win then America will not be America anymore.”

When asked why there is so much backlash against the Park51 project, Zogby said it is one of the many symptoms of the current social and economic unrest in the country — which, he says, has been exacerbated by people who do not like having an African-American president. “I think it is part and parcel of the broader social unravelling. I think that is taking place. We saw it begin last summer. I think some of it has to do with the fact that we have elected an African-American president and some folks just can’t accept it,” he said. “There is no question that the economic distress and social dislocation which has occurred is part of it and I think at the same time that eight to nine years of misinformation has taken its toll.”

The topic of sharia featured prominently in the discussion as well. According to the panelists, sharia is the “the way to God,” and moderate sharia differs greatly from the harsh brand of sharia implemented in some Muslim countries. Al-Hibri said, “The word sharia law has been batted around as a threat. I don’t know where this came from. Why is it being discussed in the United States as a threat?”

She continued by suggesting that it is fathomable that the Founding Fathers, specifically Thomas Jefferson, took into account some of the principles in the Koran when they were building the legal framework for the United States. “There is a verse in the Koran that says there is no compulsion in religion — that is the freedom of action,” she said.

The panelists generally leveled a great deal of blame on the media and average Americans for the country’s disunity. In an effort to ameliorate detractors, the panelists encouraged members of the Muslim community to spend September 11 participating in service projects. As Al Maryati argued, the media only focuses on the bad followers of the faith. “The moderate Muslim story still has yet to be told,” he said.

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