Monday, April 17, 2006

Islam in the Polls

Americans know more about Islam than ever before - and they don't like what they see.

A new CBS News poll conducted in early April suggests that 45 percent of Americans hold negative views of Islam, compared to 33 percent in the tense aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in March that also showed a growing number of Americans (46 percent) expressing unfavorable opinions of Islam.

The situation has become so bleak that Muslim religious leaders sought the help of a Nobel Laureate to stem this rising tide of negativity. The Dalai Lama, 71, led leaders from Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Native American traditions at "A Gathering of Hearts Illuminating Compassion" conference in San Francisco recently. The leaders appealed to Americans not to equate Islam with terrorism.

What makes these polls so scary for Muslims is that the queried Americans confirmed that they were better informed about Islam now than they were five years ago.

In other words, despite all the mosque open houses, outreach and interfaith programs, books and articles on Islam, the idea that increased knowledge will lead to greater tolerance toward Islam and Muslims has become more eluive than ever.

Is there a contradiction here?

Not really, if one thinks about it.

Consider the situation from the point of view of an average American.

During the week of April 10-16 (a remarkable convergence of Passover, Easter and the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday), the average American learned that Zacarias Moussaoui, the al-Qaida terrorist, had “no regrets, no remorse” for the nearly 3,000 people killed on September 11, 2001.

There is the consistent horror of Sunnis and Shias dismembering each other in Iraq and Pakistan, always when the gathering is large, as during the Friday congregational prayers.

There is also the daily genocide that the Muslim Janjaweed militia wages against the indigenous tribes of Darfur, Sudan, most of whom are also Muslims but of darker skins.

Yes, most Muslims are as outraged by these horrors as the average American in question. But isn’t it too much to expect that he will continue to be reassured by our words (the fanatics are not of us and we are not of them, and besides, every faith has its fanatics) while the horrific deeds continue unabated?

He sees what Muslims are doing to Muslims, how some of them are spewing murderous hatred for the West, and while he may hold his own country responsible for the catastrophe in Iraq, it does not diminish his growing conviction that Muslims are disproportionately prone to violence. Talk of peace and harmony can go only so far; he is more persuaded by the grim reality on the ground.

In the same week, however, quiet (and recurring) events of different sorts were taking place throughout America, far removed from the gaze of the mainstream media.

In a crime-infested neighborhood in East Oakland, Calif., for example, two Muslims stand at a street corner, giving out free popcorn and cotton candy to passersby. Their only goal is to spread some cheer and hope to their down-trodden neighbors. With help from their activist friends from the nearby mosque called Masjid Al-Islam, they host year-round soup kitchens for the poor and the hungry.

We also learn that Habibe Husain, founder of Rahima Foundation (, has received the Human Relations award of California’s Santa Clara County. Her organization has been helping the less fortunate residents of Silicon Valley and adjoining areas since 1993.

In cities such as Sacramento, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Atlanta, local Muslim doctors provide poor and uninsured residents with free medical care. And through organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Muslims also volunteer their time and skills to build homes for the homeless.

Is our average American aware of these “events?” Perhaps not. There is no requirement that he should be, unless he is a beneficiary himself. After all, we Muslims providing humanitarian services are doing so not to enhance our standing in the polls, but as a religious calling to help the less fortunate.

But these acts do teach us an important lesson. While it is undeniable that there is a need to educate Americans about Islam and Muslims, perhaps our efforts will go further if more of us engaged in deeds rather than words.

Most of our mosques have traditionally been heavy on seminars and conferences but after several years, these often turn into a case of preaching to the converted.

Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, an act of charity is worth a thousand sermons. So here’s a humble suggestion to my fellow American Muslims: Let’s cut down on the number of seminars and conferences at our local mosques by about half and replace them with charitable acts that affect the homeless, the needy and the destitute around us. That will require more effort than writing a check or listening to an Imam expound on the same tired topic. But in the end, it will make us better Muslims.

Perhaps it will even improve our standing in the eyes of our fellow Americans.

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