Changing Hearts, Opening Minds

A grassroots movement is needed to build bridges and strengthen ties between the Muslim community and the greater public.

By Haley Rodgers

I work for CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations, an organization that is one of many on the front lines of the fight to promote and protect the civil liberties of the American Muslim community. In doing so, we are constantly walking a line of complicity and resistance, in that we must do two things at the same time: First, maintain credibility and engage with a system that exists, which is oppressive toward American Muslims and other minority communities; and second, defend our rights and community.

The Massachusetts chapter of CAIR, the largest Muslim advocacy organization in the United States, was established in June 2015 after a call from the community to address the needs of American Muslims. After beginning operations in 2016, we are now a four-person team based in Boston. Our role is to build bridges and strengthen relationships between the Muslim community and the greater public and to ensure the Muslim voice is included in public discourse.

One major challenge that we face in the field right now is the normalization of Islamophobic rhetoric, which, more often than not, is translated into violent action against or oppression of the Muslim community or those who are perceived to be Muslim. Ben Carson, a former presidential candidate and now a major player in the current administration, publicly stated that Islam is not conducive to America and to democracy. This increasingly common ideology has a long-term, detrimental impact on American Muslims. Frankly, this ideology is not based on any truth, but the fact that it is becoming the normal thought process for too many people is incredibly dangerous.

This is an edited version of a presentation Rodgers delivered in the panel “Resistance and Complicity to Empire through Political Movements,” during the “Beyond Bans, Beyond Walls: Women, Gender, and Islam Symposium” held at Harvard Divinity School on April 7, 2017.

We have children as young as eight years old being called terrorists in classrooms.

Islamophobic rhetoric has even trickled down to our schools. At CAIR, we have been astounded by the faith-based bullying that is occurring in our school systems, which has only increased in recent months. We have children as young as eight years old being called terrorists in classrooms. How are these children going to have the confidence to stand up in front of people and fight for their community, if, before they even have the ability to fully understand and practice their own religion, they are being told by their classmates that it is inherently bad?

At the same time, we are doing our best to have a strong presence in the media, to change the way that Islam is portrayed to the public. National statistics suggest 65 percent of Americans believe they have never met a Muslim. A former intern recently did a study that showed approximately 80 percent of the stories about Muslims published in one of Boston’s largest newspapers portrayed them in a negative and violent context. When you consider these two statistics together, it is wholly unsurprising that many Americans perceive Muslims to be bad, violent, and inherently against democracy and American values. So CAIR works tirelessly to change this dialogue by interacting directly with journalists to change the way we portray Muslims and to encourage unbiased and balanced perceptions of Muslims in the media.

By far our greatest challenge is in being proactive, as we are constantly forced to react to unprecedented political action against our community. The best way to develop proactive strategies for resistance is through alliances with like-minded groups and individuals. Since Donald Trump was elected president, CAIR has had an overwhelming response from allies in the nonprofit and private sectors, people in education and in public office. People have been showing us so much support, reaching out to say that they want to work with us to make the world a safer place, to encourage dialogue between parties who could benefit from it, and to promote the understanding of Islam.

This raises challenges, too, because at the end of the day, we end up with a lot of allies who do not yet understand the full extent of Islamophobia. Moreover, rather than allowing us, as an oppressed population, to come up with long-term solutions organically and from a grassroots level, we are sometimes told what to do by people on the periphery of the issue.

We have found that the best way to encourage allies and supporters of our organization is to teach them about Islamophobia, particularly regarding the financial and political interest in funding and propagating Islamophobic rhetoric and misinformation. Education better equips allies to defend our mission and understand the issues at hand.

Fortunately, through this job, I have the opportunity to meet many well-intentioned people from outside our community looking to support us, and my appreciation for their solidarity is inexpressible. I try to encourage them to be good allies by learning more about the challenges our community faces. At the same time, members of the Muslim community must also take responsibility to ensure that they are being presented in a fair, unbiased, and accurate way.

The fact that merely being a political organization that serves Muslims subjects you to being perceived as a dangerous organization is discouraging.

One indicator that CAIR-MA is succeeding in its mission is that we have become a constant target of hate groups, which are ever motivated to slander our name and our cause. I do feel frustrated that nearly every time I forge a new partnership, I first must defend our organization against inaccurate misinformation. The fact that merely being a political organization that serves Muslims subjects you to being perceived as a dangerous organization is discouraging. At the same time, I feel encouraged that people are motivated to better understand our cause, that they are open-minded enough to second-guess something they see or hear, whether it’s an individual being smeared or an entire organization being attacked.

My perspective is unique in a way, because I am a Muslim convert. I had been living out of the United States for seven years, working as a humanitarian aid worker. During this time abroad, I converted to Islam. When I chose to convert, I did so out of personal experience and contemplation, not because I was recruited over Twitter while sitting home alone. Throughout my conversion, I never considered Islam to be incompatible with liberal ideology. I am to some extent proof that it is not: I am a liberal, white lady from the North Shore. However, I didn’t experience what it’s like to be a Muslim, and to be a female Muslim, in the United States until recently.

In this sense, I stand on the fringe of American Muslim society. I must exercise humility and modesty and understand the challenges of others, while recognizing my own privilege in that I am an American citizen and I speak English as a first language. Because of my privilege, I feel that it’s my duty to take on risks that other people wouldn’t feel comfortable with, because they may be green-card holders or migrants to this country.

For me, Islam is justice, especially for women. My hope is that, as times change, we are fostering young people—including young Muslim women—to take leadership positions within their communities. And as we give them the capacity to mobilize and to lead, I hope that hearts and minds will change. I hope that academics in this city and state and country and professionals of all kinds—in the nonprofit sector, too—can be a driving force behind this. Open-mindedness is the key, both within our own community and among those who wish to be allies. As I see it, building this kind of grassroots movement is the only way the American Muslim community can successfully resist the system we must work within.

Watch the presentation by Haley Rodgers:

Listen to the full panel:

Haley Rodgers is dedicated to serving marginalized populations around the world. After spending six years abroad working in Kenya, Jordan, and Iraq on various development efforts and humanitarian emergencies, she returned to her home city of Boston to work as development director for CAIR-MA. She holds a master’s degree in development practice from Sciences Po in Paris, France, and a bachelor’s degree in international relations from American University, Washington, DC.

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