Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 2012, Page 53

Muslim-American Activism

Getting Beyond American-Muslim Caricatures

(l-r) Mohamed Magid, Maria Ebrahimji, Mohamed Younis, Precious Muhammad and Emmanuel Kattan try to change stereotypes of Muslim Americans. (Staff photo K. Duffey)

The Newseum in Washington, DC held a conference on June 28 titled "Reason vs.

Rhetoric: Understanding American Muslims," co-sponsored by Our Shared Future, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, the Interfaith Alliance, and the Religious Freedom Education Project. A panel titled "American Muslim: Caricature vs. Reality," moderated by Emmanuel Kattan of the British Council USA, began by describing how American Muslims are caricatured. Americans view their fellow Muslim citizens as "anti-democratic," Kattan said, who went on to note that the purpose of the panel was not to dwell on stereotypes, but rather to change them. The goal of the day was to "move from caricature to reality," he explained.

The first panelist to speak was Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America. He described the current picture of Muslims in America as "really mixed," adding "From the rhetorical perspective, we have certainly seen a lot of progress." Magid was optimistic, remarking, "People are beginning to realize that Muslims are like anyone else in this country."

Maria Ebrahimji, CNN executive editorial producer and director of CNN's booking department, brought media expertise to the conversation. "We have every right…to blame the media for their portrayal of American Muslims," she declared. As producer of the CNN TV special "Muslims Next Door," she said she discovered that "there are people who have a misunderstanding about what my religion, Islam, is all about." However, she added, "I think the caricature is changing."

Precious Muhammad, a scholar and well-known author, added historical perspective to the discussion. "It is a fact that Muslims contributed directly and indirectly to the foundation of America," she stated, referring to her research on African-Muslim slaves in the antebellum South. Her work demonstrates that Islam is not a new religion in the United States, she said.

The final panelist, Mohamed Younis, a senior analyst at the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, pointed out the necessity of creating a counter narrative to help overcome stereotypes. He suggested that Americans think about Islam differently than other religions, asking rhetorically, "When was the last time you stopped a Catholic on the street and asked them about the latest ruling from the pope?" He envisioned a future when American Muslims are viewed no differently than any other group of Americans. "When you see Muslims playing public roles," he said, "that is the goal for this community." Younis concluded by anticipating the time when his Muslim-American community "can go from assimilation to belongingness."

—Keenan Duffey