Freedom for All

When thinking about life, liberty, and the the pursuit of happiness, the first country that comes to mind is America. Americans certainly use their freedoms to the fullest extent possible. However, that doesn’t mean everyone feels welcome to practice their Constitutional rights.

College campuses have been places of both proactive change and prejudiced intolerance. When living in a country, America or Canada, privileged enough to promote the freedoms of speech and religion, it is the people’s responsibility to uphold those. Words and actions have significant power in how we perceive each other and the world as a whole. When it comes specifically to anti-Muslim views, to encourage progress in both understanding and accepting Islam, more people must reach out to the Islamic community in solidarity and speak out against hate. While that is a task everybody should consider acting on, educational institutions provide an appropriate platform to inform people and spread a message of tolerance for all faiths.

Campuses up north are already paving the way for emphasizing acceptance. A talk last week at Bishop’s University titled, “The Progressive Voices of the Arab-Muslim World,” presented the common elements that unite the Muslim community and the Quebec host community. The talk also consciously addresses the myths and prejudices with regards to the Muslim community that are omnipresent in the media by challenging them with an overview of the presence of progressive voices that exist both in the Western world as well as in the Arab-Muslim world.

A stark contrast back in the States, the Argus Leader has reported a Worldview Weekend event taking place not too far from my home campus featuring Tennessee radio host and author Brannon Howse and Spokane, Wash.-based Pastor Shahram Hadian, an Iranian-born former Muslim who’s converted to Christianity. Hadian plans to address the importance of “extreme vetting of Muslim immigrants,” due to the “clear and present threat ISIS poses to America as they have boasted of placing their terrorists among the refugees flooding into America.” This message promotes further intolerance and portrays Islam as a religion of hate and violence. The Muslim population thusly responds with fear of more judgment, injustice and violence.

Mass media has received scrutiny for its portrayal of Muslims, especially with its influence on people’s simplistic views of Islam to a few radical extremists. For the majority of media consumers, coverage of Muslims and Islam is likely to shape the opinions of those who have limited or no contact with this religion and its people. Research by sociologist Christopher Bail finds that U.S. media coverage of the 9/11 events was dominated by messages of fear and anger originating in the press releases from anti-Muslim fringe organizations rather than more moderate messages emanating from mainstream civil society groups. He goes so far as to charge that such messages changed the mainstream discourse itself.

This discourse extends into virtually all public domains. A politics of fear has been used to justify discrimination against Muslims. This has resulted in unwarranted surveillance, unlawful profiling, and the Trump administration’s exclusionary immigration policies targeting people based on their faith, nationality, or national origin. According to the ACLU, the federal government’s Countering Violent Extremism initiative focuses overwhelmingly on American Muslim communities, stigmatizing them  and casting unwarranted suspicion on innocuous activity. Islamophobia is not a new phenomenon, nor is it discrimination going away anytime soon.

On the systemic level, Canadians are trying to prevent Islamophobia, but an all-encompassing effort isn’t receiving great support. Canada’s National Post says almost nine out of 10 of Canadians have little faith in a new motion condemning anti-Muslim sentiment and to strike a committee to study systemic racism, will accomplish anything, although they are split as to whether it’s worth passing even symbolically. Although the proposed policy means well and would not likely infringe upon any freedoms, its vagueness and majority unease regarding its approval leads people to wonder how to best combat Islamophobia.

Media and education are key tools in alleviating this problem. Muslims should also get more involved in communities, media and politics, encouraging people to recognize the similarities between Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination. The Huffington Post discusses integration and dialogue among all ethnicities and faiths as a means for helping individuals overlook certain assumptions and stereotypes pertaining to radical extremist groups. These groups are small offshoots of Islam and should not define the entire Muslim population nor their beliefs.

Educational curricula should take a stand on Islamophobia as well. If a general education includes mentions of Judaism and Christianity, it only seems appropriate to also include Islam. One TIME magazine article says the virtues of learning about religion, especially as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, are priceless. Education is a platform to foster understanding and empathy for others across religious and ethnic lines. Students cannot be fully educated human beings if they do not learn about the great religious traditions, and teaching about Islam—the most misunderstood religious system of our time—is a solemn obligation.

Discrimination is a cruel part of human nature. An “us versus them” mentality divides humanity into vague categories, pitting them against each other. Those under scrutiny, whether for differences in race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, have faced a history of oppression. Some research even concludes that racism increases blood pressure and mortality rates, along with higher rates of drug abuse, mental illness and suicide. Hate possesses the power to wreak havoc beyond visible crimes and ignorant words.

Overcoming prejudice is no easy feat. A simplistic solution is compassion, but to truly reach a point of tolerance for all, every single person must do their part to embrace the unique qualities of others and respect them. The Golden Rule applies to everybody.

The media, especially when exploiting radical violence, cannot serve as the only channel of awareness. Regardless of country of origin or citizenship, young people especially have the potential to answer discrimination with tolerance, prejudice with wisdom. To do so, however, awareness is a necessity. When democratized countries fall back on their roots of freedom for all, followers of Islam are not discluded.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

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