"Islamophobia," or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, stems from fearing the unknown, Edgar Hopida, spokesman for the San Diego Council on American-Islamic Relations told a group of Palomar College students Wednesday.
"It's a very problematic mentality which takes root from centuries of misunderstanding," Hopida told the crowd after projecting some statistics on a screen.
Almost 60 percent of Americans are "not very knowledgeable" or "not at all knowledgeable" about Islam and nearly one-fifth admit to intolerant feelings toward Muslims, according to the council's 2006 survey of public opinion about Islam and Muslims.
Hopida said people who don't have any contact with Muslims tend to have a more negative view of Islam than those who have friends or coworkers who are Muslim.
About 30 students and community members gathered on Palomar's main campus Wednesday night to learn more about the religion and the concept of Islamophobia during Islam Awareness Week, jointly sponsored by Palomar and MiraCosta's chapters of the Muslim Student Association, which has more than 500 chapters at colleges and universities across the United States and Canada.
The dialogue was part of a series of discussions and question-and-answer sessions on topics ranging from the basics of the religion to Muslim and non-Muslim relations, which were held on campus this week to combat common misconceptions through education, said Hafifa Siddiq, president of MiraCosta's chapter who organized the event.
"We want people to make their judgements based on knowledge, not opinions and what they see in media," said Siddiq. "The Islamic perspective rarely gets much attention. We want to provide that representation."
During the discussion, Hopida outlined the roots of Islamophobia from the religion's inception to modern times.
"Islam was seen as a major challenge to Christianity from the beginning, not because it was new and different, but because it was too similar to the traditions of Christianity and Judaism," he said.
The prejudice against Islam and Muslims stems from misconceptions that have built up over time, including the ideas that the religion is monolithic and does not have any values in common with other religions, Hopida said. Muslims are wrongly viewed as violent, aggressive and supportive of terrorism, he said, images that have saturated mainstream media after Sept. 11, 2001. (MORE)