The religious community tells a lot of stories. We tell stories from our sacred texts, we tell stories from our history, and we tell stories about what it's like to be a member of our community today.
As co-founder of Shoulder to Shoulder, a national interfaith campaign to combat anti-Muslim bigotry, I am always interested in the stories we tell -- in the media and to one another -- about Islam. More directly, I want to know what stories will help make life in America easier for our Muslim brothers and sisters, and what will fan the flames of bigotry.
Recently a web-based comedy was produced called Halal in the Family, which aims to describe to a broad audience some of the realities of being a Muslim American. By using satire, it encourages people to reconsider their assumptions about Muslims while providing a balm to those experiencing anti-Muslim bias.
Each of the four episodes focuses on a different challenge faced by American Muslims and communities associated with Muslims. The themes, which were identified by Muslims and civil rights organizations, include surveillance and spying in Muslim communities, online bullying and hate networks, media bias and the use of anti-Muslim prejudice for political gain. Aasif Mandvi, a senior correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, has helped create this video.
By presenting a Muslim family in this light -- as an everyday American family, yet one that deals with the unique experience of American Muslims -- I truly believe that Aasif and his team have created something that will help us combat anti-Muslim bigotry.
I compare this show on the other hand to the vitriol we hear every day from various news sources, or from certain thinkers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was born Muslim, but now rejects the faith. She has been writing about Islam since 2007, but her new book has received a great deal of attention and she has been on a number of T.V. shows, including The Daily Show. She and most Muslims are critical of the extremists like ISIS, but she claims that the only solution is to change Islam.
These narratives -- that Islam is irreconcilably violent -- have fueled the anti-Muslim bigotry that has been growing steadily since September 11, 2001. There are many recent examples of American Muslims being attacked, as one man was while grocery shopping in Dearborn, Michigan, or killed, including three young people in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Then there is the everyday discrimination which doesn't make headlines.
There has been a huge amount of vandalism of mosques and Islamic Centers across the country, including in Manassas, Virginia, Minnesota, Houston, Texas, and Rhode Island. There has been classroom bullying (from teachers and fellow students).
A Florida teacher is accused of calling a Muslim student "raghead Taliban" last month. There has been anti-Muslim rhetoric from politicians including Texas Rep. Molly White's anti-Muslim remarks when Muslims visited the Texas state capitol for a civic-engagement day.
I worry when one particular religion is picked on. The world has seen the horrible effects of anti- Semitism and now, anti-Muslim bigotry. Recently, we have seen the awful events of Christians murdered in Syria, Iraq and Nigeria. The goal of the religious community concerned about anti-Muslim bigotry -- the purpose of the stories we tell -- must be to decrease the intensity and the numbers of people who hold those feelings.
In response to several incidents of anti-Muslim bigotry, including the threats by a pastor in Florida to burn the Qur'an (which he later did), I helped convene a gathering of senior religious leaders on September 7, 2010, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. to issue a statement and then hold a large press conference where religious leaders stated that bigotry against one religion is bigotry against all. The Constitution of the United States guarantees religious freedom for everyone in the U.S. and the scriptures of most religions call on their adherents to welcome people who are not like them -- to provide hospitality to those of many faiths.
Several months later, Shoulder to Shoulder was born. Since that time, the interfaith community, through Shoulder to Shoulder, has worked hard to decrease anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States and has responded to particularly egregious incidents of that bigotry.
Religious communities -- my own included -- depend on debate, self-examination and new ideas to stay relevant, be faithful and grow. This is true within the Muslim community as well. However, when observers, and the media in particular, discuss these debates, it is important that we consider how we tell these stories, and ask if they are hurting Muslims in the U.S. and across the world.
I applaud Halal in the Family and Aasif Mandvi who created this show in order to decrease the amount and intensity of anti-Muslim bigotry. Religious freedom for all Americans is protected most effectively when no religion or its adherents are attacked. It is up to all of us, as people of faith, to stand with Aasif Mandvi as he uses Halal in the Family to disprove the myths about Muslims and Islam and to join Shoulder to Shoulder to decrease the amount and intensity of anti-Muslim bigotry. It is the needed and right thing to do.
Rev. Richard Killmer is co-founder of Shoulder to Shoulder, an interfaith coalition dedicated to ending anti-Muslim bigotry in America.