Catherine Orsborn spends a lot of her time thinking about how to put an end to Islamophobia forever.
It's part of her job as the campaign director for Shoulder to Shoulder, an interfaith coalition made up of over 20 national religious organizations. The group brings together religious groups that differ widely on theology-- everyone from the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America -- but who are all eager to present a solid front against rising levels of anti-Muslim sentiment in America.
Orsborn, 31, told The Huffington Post that she didn't have much exposure to Islam growing up in the Bible Belt. Her family was part of a small conservative Christian denomination that focused on international missions work. She went to Christian schools as a child and as a college student. There may have been Muslims in her home town of Lexington, Kentucky, but their paths never crossed.
It was only when she signed up to study abroad in Cairo, Egypt, during her last year of college, that she got a chance to develop meaningful relationships with Muslims.
"[In Egypt,] I started having really interesting theological conversations with a Muslim friend my age and realizing that the way she held on to her faith felt very familiar to me," Orsborn told The Huffington Post. "I felt like it was a mirror of myself, but with a different tradition."
The trip shattered her preconceived notion about a monolithic Muslim world. But coming back from Egypt, Orsborn found that those stereotypes were still very much alive in her evangelical Christian community.
Studies have shown that knowing someone from a religious group is linked with having more positive views of that group. Yet the American Muslim community is so small (just about 1 percent of the total U.S. population), that unless people are willing to search for these experiences, like Orsborn did, they may never end up in the same social circles as Muslims.
That's where allies come in -- non-Muslims who are willing to walk alongside Muslims, take a stand against Islamophibic rhetoric and spread this message to other members of their social groups.
HuffPost Religion spoke with Orsborn for her advice on how to be a good ally for Muslim Americans. Read on for her tips below.
HuffPost Religion: When you hear the word "ally" what kind of feeling does it evoke in you? What does the word mean to you?
Catherine Orsborn: For me, to be an ally is to to come alongside people who are experiencing this stuff the most personally and the most negatively and trying to listen to them about it... I think 'ally' conjures up this feeling that you can opt in. And surely, I think people can opt in to be more fully engaged, but the people who ignore it will feel it eventually because [Islamophobia] is eroding the pluralistic nature of our country... It's something we all genuinely have a stake in as Americans and as people of faith.
What are the responsibilities or personality traits of a good ally?
I think that there are two really important qualities that I think sometimes people wanting to be good allies miss at the beginning. And that's the values of listening and having a sense of humility. You're not coming in as the 'savior' of whatever group you're walking beside and you don't know everything. You can't assume what that experience is like. So I think one of the first steps in being an ally is taking the time to expose yourself to various voices from the Muslim community. Some people may not be able to do that in person, so they may need to be reading blogs or op-eds or following a variety of people on Twitter. But be listening to the priorities, concerns, feelings and experiences of the community. And be aware that there is more than one Muslim voice because American Muslim communities are often very diverse. I think humility goes hand in hand with being a good listener. It's about not speaking for, but coming alongside.
In your experience, what is the most effective way to change an Islamophobic person's mind?
In terms of one-on-one conversations, I've found that immediately trying to push out facts that counter the facts the other person are sharing makes people dig in their heels about it more. There's a Socratic method to it, of asking questions and trying to make people feel listened to or heard, that the fears that they're feeling about family or country are not being dismissed ... Then, you find that they're open to conversations where you can ask, 'Where are you getting your information from, or how would you feel if the information everyone had about you came from news sources interested in making you look bad?' Establish a safe space for people and help them to see that Muslims are also concerned about their security, that they also feel the insecurity that they fear. Muslims living in the country have the same fears right now about themselves and about their children.
What can ordinary people do?
I think anybody can start the work of trying to listen and seek out voices from the Muslim community and help amplify those. Sometimes we make the interfaith relationship building space too complicated. We think we need to form interfaith councils and have a perfectly structured event. I think just getting a few people together to have a play group with your kids or coffee hour or book groups, that works well, too. You don't always have to have a structured conversation, or even talk about religion at all. You could get together and do something normal ... Little steps are valuable, too.
What gives you hope and keeps you motivated about fighting Islamophobia, even in this very turbulent political climate?
Every time there is an upsurge of anti-Muslim rhetoric, I hear from tons of concerned people who want to know how to plug in and what they can do ... Because I come from a more conservative Christian evangelical community, I can say that I've seen a lot more interest [from them] on engaging on this issue ... Conservatives Christians broadly, they don't want to be seen as the haters. I think there's this push towards being seen as people who are loving and that has really been encouraging.
There's also a lot of collaboration among people who don't want any group in our society to be discriminated against. I'm seeing different groups with different issue areas working together and seeing that the issues are interconnected to one another. It's not a zero sum game of a particular group getting more rights and somehow curtailing the rights of another group. We're all fighting for equal rights and equal dignity. When I see that collaboration happening, it's overwhelming but it's also exciting that people see their destines are connected.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.