SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, 2006
Education Is Key To Reversing Attitudes About Islam
In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful
COMMENTARY: Education Is Key to Reversing Attitudes About Islam
By HESHAM A. HASSABALLA
c. 2006 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) I can hardly believe it has been five years since the
devastating attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That day was doubly hurtful for
me as an American Muslim. That anyone would willfully and murder
3,000 Americans was painful enough. To learn, however, that those
responsible for the death and destruction claimed their deed in the
of my faith hurt just as much. The memories -- as well as the pain --
that terrible September morning will be with me for the rest of my
In the weeks following the attacks, our nation witnessed a
tremendous unity that had not occurred in quite a long time. Americans
of all colors, creeds, and walks of life came together to comfort one
another. What was most heartening was the response of non-Muslim
Americans toward their American Muslim neighbors.
While there were scattered acts of violence and discrimination
directed toward Muslims (or those who "looked" Muslim), for the most
part, non-Muslim Americans reached out and comforted Muslims. The
widespread backlash that many American Muslims -- including this
-- feared would occur failed to materialize. In fact, a Pew Research
Center poll found that the number of Americans with a favorable view
Islam rose -- from 45 percent in May 2001 to 59 percent two months
A 2004 Cornell University poll had more disturbing results: 44
percent of Americans favored at least some restrictions on the civil
liberties of Muslims (although more -- 48 percent -- said there should
be no restrictions whatsoever). Approximately one-quarter of Americans
said Muslims should have to register with the government and that law
enforcement personnel should engage in racial profiling and undercover
monitoring of Muslims.
Earlier this year, an ABC News/Washington Post poll showed even
worse results: 46 percent of Americans had a negative view of Islam.
Twenty-five percent admitted harboring prejudice against Muslims. The
number of Americans who believe mainstream Islam encourages violence
against non-Muslims more than doubled, to 33 percent.
What happened? Why did Americans' attitudes toward Islam and Muslims
become so unfavorable? For one thing, ever since President Bush
Islam to be a "religion of peace" (a far cry from his recent statement
about "Islamic fascists") many comments about Islam made by prominent
Americans have been extremely negative. The Rev. Jerry Falwell called
the Prophet Muhammad a "terrorist." Franklin Graham -- son of
Billy Graham -- called Islam a "very evil and wicked religion."
With the invasion of Iraq and the resultant insurgency, which
brought out the most brutal Muslim extremists, Americans have
the beheading of hostages, the kidnapping and murdering of
aid workers and private contractors, and near daily suicide bombings.
Many of these acts have been committed in the name of Islam.
The recent report that Palestinians forced two Fox News journalists
to convert to Islam at gunpoint did not help things. It seems that the
only news reported about Islam and Muslims involves violence and
thus it is not unexpected that Americans would view Islam in a
Yet, amid this doom and gloom there is a glimmer of hope. There is
opportunity among the smoke of "Islamic terror." It is quite easy to
explain that the near constant bad news about Islam does not
reflect the entire faith, just as the alleged rape and murder of an
Iraqi girl -- or the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib -- does not
accurately reflect the U.S. military. Second, I believe much of the
negative attitude toward Muslims reported in the numerous polls
conducted since 9/11 stems from ignorance about the faith.
Consistently, 60 percent to 70 percent of Americans admit to having
little or no knowledge of Islam. Reverse this ignorance with education
and outreach, and I am confident the negative attitudes toward Islam
will decrease. People fear the unknown and out of this fear comes
and prejudice. Once Americans get to know their Muslim neighbors -- at
cookouts, PTA meetings and sporting events -- they will realize that
they have more things in common than in contrast. Then the prejudice
that one in four Americans admits to harboring against Muslims will
Such outreach and education are hard work, and countering the near
constant negative imagery associated with Islam is a daunting task.
it helps to bring Americans together when there are many who wish to
tear us apart. We can again achieve the heart-warming unity that
abounded after Sept. 11, even if it is five years later.