"What can Muslims do to overcome Islamophobia?" This question (also on my mind) was asked by a colleague during the grand concluding session of the Islamic awareness week of the Vanderbilt University's Muslim Students Association event on Valentine's day. Dr.Todd Green and Dr. Jonothan Brown, as the distinguished speakers dazzled on stage, I remember not being able to move forward from that question, stuck in the awkward realization that the answer was basically right there staring at my face all along.
Having been born in Karachi and raised in Westchester N.Y., I had always enjoyed meeting new people. But I never knew that this skill I had unconsciously developed would be such a defining trait in my personality upon joining the prestigious Vanderbilt University after completing medical school in Pakistan. Having always been a shy kid, moving to America seemed intimidating at first. But I soon realized that communication was key and with my diverse background at my helm I gambled with my diversity card and got lucky. The kid who used to avoid playing cricket in the afternoon with his friends and would prefer playing Fifa '14 on his playstation 2 was now attending Malaysian Cultural Night, Harambee Straight Outta Africa, Nachde Nashville, Diwali night, Interfaith Council workshops. You name it. This showed others that a Muslim student is just like any other student on campus -- that he/she is one of us. But, as this door of realization opened for me, I started to question myself at first. Does going to these functions and events make me less of a Muslim? Does it make me less devoted to the One Above? The answer was clear: No, it doesn't. It was there that I had realized and understood that the reason Islamophobia is so prevalently eroding the minds of the average American is pretty simple -- they don't get to see true Muslims.
Being Muslim is not just a headline; it is much greater than that. A Muslim is not just someone who prays five times a day, not just the sister who covers her head while going about her daily activities, not just the brother who keeps a beard emulating the following of his Prophet (May Peace Be Upon Him). No my friends, I reiterate, being a Muslim is much greater than that. As the prophet Muhammad (May Peace Be Upon Him) said, "the most excellent among the Muslims is one from whose tongue and hands the other Muslims are secure". How can a religion which practices peace, be a cause of divide and terrorism and how can it be pronounced unconstitutional and looked so down upon? Just because some individual misinterprets a verse without understanding the context and the wisdom behind it? Will we judge someone's religion based on an act performed by 0.06 percent (so called self proclaimed followers) of its 1.6 billion followers across the globe?
A recent survey by Pew Research Centre published in January 2016 quoted that "only about 10 percent Americans say they know a lot of Muslims, 26 percent say they know some Muslims and 16 percent say they know one or two Muslims". These numbers are enough to prove that unless interfaith dialogue and interfaith communication is encouraged and practiced, bigotry, hate crimes and islamophobic rhetoric will plague the people of the U.S. I by no means am trying to demoralize those brothers who are actively involved in creating such harmonious relations but just wish to proclaim that these efforts should not be limited to one community of a small city, but should be a nationwide agenda.
The sad reality is that, unfortunately the fears and prejudices of good rational American citizens are being provoked by some people and the media is conveniently using this fear to drive their actions and that's where things are getting out of hand. The time has come that we open our arms, wider than we have ever opened them, open our masjids to interfaith seminars and come out of our shell and embrace the stark reality. Muslim Student Associations across the nation must unite and make their voices heard and create awareness, at the same time making sure we beckon everyone. At the same time we must address the tough issues with the help of experts (yes there is a reason why they are called experts; they know what the context behind any religious statement is), stop condemning and apologizing for what some so-called-terrorist does, and start spreading the true essence of Islam. By doing so, the similarities between religions will blossom, differences will be crushed, and the end result will be that we will create the golden gates of love and harmony among different religions and cultures. But be wary, this may sound easy and idealistic, but this path will be no walk in the park. There will be many hurdles, many people who will oppose you and push you down, but as a wise man once said, "People will always throw stones in your successful path. Now it depends on you what you make of it, a wall or a bridge."
Interfaith relations will crush the barriers of misunderstanding, form blossoming alliances and lead to a platform where individuals will work collectively as one, to strive for the common greater good. So my fellow Muslims, be proud of who you are, as once you stop doubting yourself and stop hiding your inner beautiful self, that will be the day the world will really accept you. To conclude, I would just like to quote the beautiful words written by Zainab Abdali in a recent HuffPost article:
Are you Muslim? Yes, I am. Listen, nod, smile. Not because you are programmed to or because you don't want to be threatening but because it means something. Being Muslim means something more than a headline or a project.
Are you Muslim? Yes, I am. I am Muslim, unapologetically. I am Muslim, wholeheartedly, cheerfully, and thoughtfully. I am Muslim, most meaningfully.