Ibrahim Souadda is only 12, but already he's had a taste of what it means to be "the other."
Sometimes children tease him for being Muslim. "They say it like a joke," he said yesterday, as he waited for the start of a panel discussion on "Islamophobia," or the fear of Islam and its effect on American Muslims.
In the same breath, Ibrahim talked excitedly about his social-studies class at Valley Forge Middle School. There, he's learning how the divisions of "otherness" can be bridged through knowledge.
"Right now we're learning the difference between Muslim and Amish people. It's really interesting," Ibrahim said.
The need for such knowledge and understanding has never been more pressing, yesterday's panelists agreed, citing the escalating political rhetoric around "Islamo-fascism."
The gathering, at Houston Hall on the University of Pennsylvania campus, was sponsored by the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in Washington. About 50 people attended.
Ignorance fuels the fear of Muslims in this country from the grassroots to the highest levels of government, said panelist Parvez Ahmed, the council's national board chairman.
Part of the problem is the insular nature of the American Muslim community, he said, "but American Muslims reject extremism in all its forms."
In a study released earlier this year, the Pew Research Center concluded that American Muslims are a "highly diverse population" that is "decidedly American in outlook, values and attitudes."
And yet Americans persist in confusing religion and politics.
Panelist Linda Hanna, a business consultant, outlined some of the stereotypes that result: Muslim equals Arab equals "unscrupulous pathological fanatic or terrorist with primitive motives." Especially post-9/11.
Lost on many is the idea that there is nothing inherent in the religion of Islam that promotes terrorism. Rather, Hanna said, "There is a minority using religion for political ends."
There are about 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, most of them in Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Muslims constitute only six million of the 300 million people in the U.S. (MORE)