Interfaith Institute Tackles Islamophobia

Dr. Homayra Ziad makes a point while addressing the BHC Sisterhood’s Interfaith Institute. (Photo by Erica Rimlinger)

Dr. Homayra Ziad, scholar of Islam at the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies, argues that a one-dimensional view of Muslims is incorrect.

“Muslims, who constitute two percent of the U.S. population, are the most diverse group in the country, hailing from 40 to 50 countries worldwide,” she told a crowd at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation on Monday.

Ziad was the keynote speaker at the BHC Sisterhood’s 57th annual Interfaith Institute, dubbed “Islamophobia: The New Normal.” She spoke from her experience as an American Muslim about pervasive Islamophobia in America. A Yale graduate who co-founded and co-chairs the American Academy of Religion’s Interreligious and Interfaith Studies Group, Ziad dispelled myths and misperceptions about Islam and called on participants to step outside their comfort zones to get to know individual Muslims and the Muslim community.

“Each year, we hope participants will come away with a better understanding of their own religion, other religions and the importance of continued learning and dialogue,” said BHC Rabbi Andrew Busch. While introducing the question-and-answer panel, Busch noted the irony of the event’s timing: as the session began, the White House had just announced a revised travel ban on six Muslim countries. The topic and speakers for the event, however, had been secured before last summer. “The topics we explored were about fear more than any one current policy [and] about public opinion in general.”

The Interfaith Institute also welcomed Catherine Osbourne, campaign director for Shoulder to Shoulder, an association of religious and interfaith organizations dedicated to working against anti-Muslim bigotry in the U.S. In addition, Dr. Kristin Witte, coordinator of Catholic educational engagement at Catholic Relief Services, spoke at the event.

BHC congregant and assistant treasurer Benjamin Dubin of Pikesville had never attended an Interfaith Institute but was intrigued by this year’s topic because, he said, “I travel to Muslim countries and wanted a better understanding.”

He felt the speakers challenged him to understand himself and others and inspired him to seek out more dialogue to dispel fear of differences. “Muslim doesn’t mean terrorist,” he said, a message he feels is especially important these days, because “everyone is running scared of everybody else.”

The event drew a crowd of about 300, including 100 students from six schools. Maryvale Preparatory School seniors Sophie Koch, Alexa Kolodgie and Maggie Welling were accompanied by seven classmates, their world religions teacher, Mary Pat Tilghman, and Maryvale’s director of college counseling, Monica Graham.

“I wanted to come,” Graham explained, “because my son works for an international nonprofit in a Muslim country.”

The three classmates were drawn to this optional field trip by their personal interests, which they felt may eventually inform their future professional interests.

Maggie, a future political science major, said: “I’m interested in the intersection of theology and politics and how they interact.” She added that “it’s important to hear other views than what’s being reported in the media.” She described herself as politically active, said she learned today that “you need to bring everyone to the table and listen to really understand” an issue.

Sophie agreed and said she came because she wants to become a human rights activist and harbors a particular interest in helping “groups who are voiceless, who need a voice.” All agreed their field trip was worthwhile, and Alexa said attending the morning’s session was helpful because she “got a different point of view, and that will help make me a better communicator.”

Busch began the question-and-answer session with a question about Islamophobia in the U.S. and how it’s viewed worldwide. Panelist Witte said Islamophobia has given her American colleagues at Catholic Relief Services a taste of humility among their global peers.

“We don’t have the privilege to not stand up to it anymore,” she said. She and her American colleagues believe that these days their “obligation is to be more than what [we’re] being.”

Ziad spoke about terrorism and groups using Islam to defend their atrocities.

“If everyone reading the Quran looked up and said, ‘We’ve got to kill everyone,’ well, there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. Everyone would be dead.” Islamic extremists are not the norm, she said, and are engaging in a “deep and cynical abuse of religion.”

“The fact is, we hear about Islamic terrorism more because it fits the narrative. Violence happens in many countries for many reasons. When you choose to focus on one, that’s where it becomes Islamophobia,” she said. “The majority of people killed by ISIS are Muslim. And many of the ISIS recruits know so little about Islam, ISIS had to put together a book for recruits [that was basically a] ‘Quran for Dummies.’”

Many of the students asked the panel what they could do to synthesize Ziad’s message into their lives and communities. Ziad told the group to “read history” and, while doing so, ask questions such as “Where did ISIS come from? Al-Qaida?” She said donating to a cause working to combat Islamophobia can help, as can reaching out to talk to Muslims. Ziad was impressed by her child’s friend’s mom, who called Ziad after the first travel ban was enacted and asked, ‘What can I do? What organization can I give to? Can we have coffee?’”

Reaching out, the speakers and panelists agreed, was difficult but worthwhile. “Call a mosque and arrange to visit,” suggested Osbourne. If you’re too shy, do it as a group. “Ramadan is a great time to reach out” and learn about Islam, said Osbourne. “And [you can also] follow Muslims on social media.”

Ziad admitted during the question-and-answer panel that being reduced to one dimension is discouraging, and fighting that one-dimensional viewpoint is hard. But she gestured to the audience and said it was participants such as these who kept her going. “There are bands of people [here and throughout the world] standing up against hate,” she said.

This, Ziad said, is cause enough for optimism.

Erica Rimlinger is a local freelance writer.

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