Do you ever get the hankering to battle ISIS, the radical self-declared Islamic State in the Middle East, from your sleepy little town of Castro Valley?
There is a way: Get to know your American-Muslim neighbor.
ISIS has fewer than 10,000 followers and they are on the other side of the earth.
They do, however, have one specific strategy to cause harm within the U.S.: Create or spur a divide between American-Muslims and other Americans in hopes some Muslims will feel isolated and alienated enough to turn to their warped ideology.
ISIS online recruiters bank on this strategy. They bank on willful ignorance about American-Muslims by average Americans. They plan strategy sessions around it.
In some ways, we are losing that fight, due to the fear that has become a major force in U.S. politics. This plays into extremists’ hands by stereotyping and marginalizing your American-Muslim neighbors.
In December, a mosque in Southern California was set on fire coinciding with the Friday weekly congregational prayers. In Tampa, Fla., a Muslim woman was shot at while in her vehicle, and in Seattle, a Muslim teenager’s death is being investigated as a possible hate crime. Nationally, Muslim women who cover have been debating whether to substitute an innocuous hoodie over their hijab head covering, which would make them stick out less in these days of heightened Islamophobia.
In the weeks following the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino shootings, we have had more hate incidents against American-Muslims than in any other time since September 11, 2001, according to the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
These are tough days to be an American-Muslim. And yet something is flowering. There is optimism in the air at our mosques. These days, we are looking less at the ethnic, cultural, and theological differences that divided us as a community. In an ironic turn, Islamophobia has galvanized us.
The move has been poignant in my town. I settled in Hayward four years ago. There are some 15,000 American-Muslims in Hayward and an estimated 250,000 American-Muslims in the Bay Area.
The old joke goes that if you have five Jews in a room, you will get eight opinions. We have five mosques in Hayward and a multitude of opinions. Until recently, there was little mosque unity. But now, Imams at each Hayward mosque came together to snap a simple photo and show appreciation for a wonderful letter of support from our Unitarian Univeralist Church in Hayward. It is one small but formative step.
All five mosques have also joined the Eden Area Interfaith Council, which is a consortium of faith groups in our area. The Council recently sponsored a forum at the Castro Valley Library. Five practicing Muslims spoke about their faith and what it is like to be a Muslim in America these days. I moderated the discussion and you can watch the panel along with a tough Q&A in its entirety here.
Personally, I have started to become better informed about my faith: To learn what minority Shia-Muslims believe; to understand the context of violent verses so often cherry-picked from the Qur’an and blasted on conservative news media; to review research on how social isolation renders youth disengaged and starving for belonging and thereby susceptible to online recruitment from thug groups like ISIS; to learn about the vast Islamophobia network in the U.S. that spent $119 million between 2008 and 2011 to manufacture hate through tactics such as buying bus ads to defame Islam and conducting deceptive training for law enforcement about American-Muslims. These and several other nefarious methods are being used to “otherise” our community.
And as a community, American-Muslims have a lot of work to do. More than 70 percent of Americans told Pew Research Center that they do not know an American-Muslim. We need to get to know our neighbors in sincere, personal interactions and dispel stereotypes by being active in all circles (you can help by visiting a mosque).
As a country, we are better than the current rhetoric. This is a nation of immigrants and that makes America a unique and great place to live. The mosaic we have created spurs innovation and creativity. It separates us from the rest of the world. It makes us stronger. That’s why we have to stand up, stand together, and we will defeat the ISIS threat.
Munir Safi lives in Hayward. He is a mosque manager in Pleasanton who has a passion for telling the stories of the American-Muslim community.