By Amer Taleb
Southern Arizona’s UNICEF Chapter hosted the Islamic Center of Tucson on Tuesday May 17th to discuss the religion of Islam and whether or not it is compatible with American society.
Sa’ad Ansari, the mosque consultant who represented the ICT, began his nearly 2-hour lecture by telling his audience that “Islam in America is a new type of paradigm that we’re facing. It differs from past struggles like racism, which was about skin color. This is about an idea, a mindset.”
Of the two themes that dominated the discussion, “Islam as a religion” was the first to be examined. Ansari made a point of distinguishing between Islam in its “pure form as sent by God”, and cultural practices that often get passed over in its place.
“When religion becomes a cultural thing, it stops being a conscious decision.” Ansari said. “When we speak about Muslims really practicing their religion, we’re talking about a group of people who made a conscious decision to choose this way of life over any other. You can’t be born into an idea, you have to accept it.”
Answering an audience member who asked how non-Muslims in America are supposed to distinguish between the two, Ansari answered frankly, “ It’s almost impossible. From the American eye looking into the Muslim World, it’s very hard to make that distinction between religion and culture. The answer is for Muslims to start practicing their religion properly and to weed out those problems.”
Joan Safier, a Jewish UNICEF volunteer who has worked on Palestinian and Israeli reconciliation, said interfaith discussions on Islam are very important to have, especially today. “As someone who knows the history of Anti-Semitism, it’s alarming to the see Islamaphobia so easily accepted. The security guard here at the Village (shopping center where event was held) told me that if a woman wearing a headscarf comes here, kids will tease and throw things at her. To think that children actually think that is OK…This is not our country. What is best in our country is our tolerance and acceptance of others.”
A 2011 Gallup Poll found that 52% of Americans are suspicious of Muslims living among them. And an ABC News/Washington Post poll published last year revealed that only 37% of Americans have a favorable view of the world’s second-largest religion.
“Fox News and ignorance.” Safier said are the two biggest instigators of misinformation about Islam. She advised combating them by “getting out of your (non-Muslims) comfort zone and meeting new people” and for the Muslim community to “Invite, invite, invite people from the press and TV to come down to the Center. Communication is key. We’re all brothers and sisters in the end and we have to respect everybody’s faith.”
After continuing with a brief history of Islam, Ansari moved onto the second and final stage of the discussion: “Is Islam socially authentic and legitimate in America?” In other words, are an American and a Muslim identity compatible?
“Every group of Americans not descended from this country’s framers (Hispanics, Jews, Black, Japanese,..) has had to go through the process of proving their ‘Americanism’.” Ansari said. “Right now, that’s the stage Muslim Americans are going through.”
“The irony is that the framers clearly had a conception that “Muhamadinism” would eventually come to the US. And that it should be something welcomed, not just tolerated and definitely not rejected.”
“American Jews invested heavily in museums when people started to question how American they were. Why is that? It was to remind people that their identity is rooted in this country’s history too.”
“20% of the slaves were Muslims, we fought in the civil war…we’ve contributed a lot to this country and we have a lot to be proud of.”
Ansari ended his discussion by saying that the “best way to measure your American legitimacy is when you yourself can define what it means to be American and to do it with confidence. And you should be confident. Ben Franklin and the Founding Fathers are on your side. If they aren’t American, then who is?”