Finding Common Ground by Dispelling Stereotypes


THE CROWDS were gathered outside waiting to be allowed in, and the press had arrived early to conduct interviews. On the other side of the world, the United States was beginning its "shock and awe" military campaign in Iraq that same weekend of March 2003. But at the sold-out Regal Cinemas in North Brunswick, the crowd was focused on the premiere of a documentary film I had just produced.

"Born in the USA" was a film about a Muslim-American doctor and a teacher in the post-Sept. 11 world. It showed them treating patients, instructing students and going home to pray as well. We heard them speak out against terrorism, and of their love for the prophets Jesus, Abraham and Adam. As the movie concluded and the credits began to roll, both the Muslims and non-Muslims erupted in applause before they began to exit.

Left sitting alone in the theatre was the man who operated the projector, who looked at me and said "Thank you for opening my eyes. I always thought Muslims were the bad guy. Now I realize how much you have in common with me."

I then thanked him for making all of my efforts worth it. There is a certain gratification that comes from realizing that the tensions and misunderstandings among people of different faiths can be eased if people invest more effort in educating each other and opening a dialogue. But a recent Homeland Security Committee hearing on Capitol Hill has shown that not everyone believes in the importance of education and dialogue.

A rebuke

Committee member Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-Paterson, rebuked ranking member Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who had criticized an ad campaign on New York City subway cars designed to educate the public about Islam.

The ads are simple black-and-white panels that feature key words or phrases about Islam on one side of the panel, such as "Head Scarf?" or "Prophet Muhammad?" and the words "You deserve to know" along with the Web site address WhyIslam.org on the other side. The main sponsor is the Islamic Circle of North America, a non-profit organization that often promotes interfaith understanding and cooperation.

King has conceded that he sees nothing wrong with the ad message itself, which raises the question why he is currently urging the Metropolitan Transit Authority to reject the ads.

"It would be giving respectability to the Islamic Circle of North America, which endorsees Imam Siraj Wihaj," King said to me in a recent interview. "I believe Wihaj is the type of leader we should not be promoting. For instance, saying the FBI are terrorists."

Wihaj is a popular imam in Brooklyn, an African-American whose family has lived in the United States for several generations and who converted to Islam several years ago. He has since apologized for his comments regarding the FBI and added that they were taken out of context. (MORE)


 


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