Reaffirming American Values 2016 Convening

NICD ISSUE FORUMS: Civil Discussions About Our Nation’s Most Pressing Challenges

Reaffirming American Values: Combating Anti-Muslim Speech and Behavior

July 11-13, 2016; Washington, DC

About the Event

In the face of increasing anti-Muslim speech and behavior across the country, in July 2016, NICD brought together 43 religious leaders, elected officials, academics, and communications professionals in a three-day discussion to:

Explore and better understand the current dynamics.
Identify individual, organizational and collective actions that will help change the way Muslims are talked about and treated in this country. 
Contribute to current messaging work that seeks to reach the broader American public.
Working in small and large-groups, participants identified leverage points and reviewed promising programs and approaches.  The working session was not always easy.  As one participating journalist later described it: “there were a few painful exchanges that reflected yawning gaps in understanding.”

In the end, the group did agree on a unified public message reaffirming that religious freedom – for all religions -- is a bedrock of American principles and values.  Participants also made individual and organizational commitments for further action steps.  Among these steps was a follow-up Town Meeting on the issue, which was held on October 17 2016 by NICD and the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum.

Understanding the Issue

“The problem manifests on different levels with multiple intermingling causes.  On a structural level, an enormous amount of money is behind the Islamophobia industry – which is well placed in the media and pushes questionable research.  On a political level, anti-Muslim political rhetoric causes spikes in anti-Muslim sentiment during campaigns. On the community level, a lot of people simply don’t know any Muslims so the information from the press may be all they know, and that information is largely negative.”

-- Meira Neggaz, Executive Director, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

The Pew Charitable Trusts has estimated that in 2015 there were about 3.3 million Muslims of all ages living in the United States – about 1% of the U.S. population, or 322 million people – and that this share will double by 2050.   Pew also found that about 10% of all legal immigrants coming into the U.S. are Muslim, and that a “significantly smaller percentage” of Muslim immigrants – compared to other groups -- are unauthorized.

In a 2014 study of views and attitudes towards Muslims, Pew found a number of distinct trends.  For example:

  • People who identify as Republicans or say they lean toward the Republican Party have more negative views of Muslims than do their Democratic counterparts.
  • Younger U.S. adults of all ideological stripes feel more warmly toward Muslims than do older Americans.
  • No other religious group is cooler toward Muslims than are white evangelical Protestants.

Over the last several years, the country has seen increases in anti-Muslim activity.  The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that while the number of hate crimes in the U.S. went down in 2014, anti-Muslim crimes increased by about 14%.  The Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University reported increasing levels of anti-Muslim violence in 2015 and continuing into 2016.

Over the last year, the Presidential election has brought these trends to the forefront, with anti-Muslim-related issues, activities and commentary receiving increased media coverage  across the country. 

Within this increasingly urgent context, “Combating Anti-Muslim Speech and Behavior” was organized to help leaders from four sectors better understand the current reality and determine how to change it moving forward.

During the Discussion

Participants in the NICD Issue Forum came to the table with knowledge and opinions drawn from their own experiences.  Interviewed about their perceptions before the event, they said:

“The rhetoric is incredibly dangerous out there, and Muslims need to be more outraged and speak out about what is going on. I don’t see the outrage of the Muslim community.”  

“We are living in a particularly fear-mongering period where people are always looking for an enemy.  In the wake of 9/11, the world found a convenient global scapegoat…and fear makes people irrational.”

“We live in a xenophobic society and that manifests in myriad ways.  One root is in the perceived supremacy of western (European white male) ideals.”

“Since the founding of our country we have had a hard time with real religious liberty -- religion has become a way we define good vs. evil.”

“Most people don’t personally know any Muslims so their experience with them is through the media -- they are relying on what they read or watch instead of real life experience.

“I am very bothered by the way people continue to paint Muslims as ‘others’ – in which being a Muslim is a slur or an accusation.”

During the discussions, participants came to agreement about some of the primary causes of anti-Muslim speech and behavior, including:

  • Ignorance about Muslims, Muslim culture and the Islamic faith.
  • Fear of terrorism and how it is manipulated.
  • Economic recession and insecurity.
  • Public legitimizing of anti-Muslim sentiment.
  • Wars and other world events shaping opinions.
  • Increased access to information via social media.
  • Religious illiteracy.
  • Industries profiting from anti-Muslim propaganda.

“Muslims are the latest victims of culture wars that have been a part of this country since it’s founding.”

-- Dr. Dennis Perry, Senior Pastor, Aldersgate United Methodist Church

Key Leverage Points

Through facilitated small group discussions, participants also worked together to identify leverage points for combating anti-Muslim speech and behavior.  These included:

  • Presenting more positive news about Muslim contributions to our society.
  • Building Muslim/non-Muslim friendships.
  • Engaging youth.
  • Utilizing celebrity as a tool to humanize and familiarize.
  • Diversity training in schools.
  • More peer-challenging within and across the religious community.
  • Myth-busting by the media; less passivity of media in allowing anti-Muslim rhetoric.
  • Comedy, food and sports.

Participants also shared information about promising programs from around the country, from Abrahamic Reunion, which supports an interfaith text study circle program, lectures, conferences and peacemaking workshops; to The Faith Angle Forum which brings together politically diverse groups of journalists to discuss issues related to religion and public policy; to the Islamic Networks Group (ING)  which works to counter prejudice and discrimination against American Muslims through education and community engagement.

A list of additional programs can be found in the Resources section below.

Moving Forward: Participant Action Steps & Commitments

Participants in the working session constructed the following unified public message:

We are a diverse group of people with a wide range of perspectives that has come together to explore the challenges created by increasing anti-Muslim sentiment.

  • We will engage in civil dialogue to understand, to heal and to unite.
  • We are working to understand the complex relationship between the rise of anti-civility and the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment.
  • We understand that religious freedom is a bedrock of American culture.
  • We believe that religious freedom means freedom for all religions.
  • We are committed to working together to restore civil dialogue and combat anti-Muslim speech and behavior.

They also made a number of individual commitments, such as holding similar dialogues in their own communities and developing and disseminating sermons on the topic that could be used across religious denominations.   In addition, a number of concrete steps were discussed for increasing the physical safety of the Muslim community, especially on 9/11.  Participants also committed to developing a database of conservative leaders who are willing to stand up against anti-Muslim bigotry.

NICD committed to continuing and broadening the conversation.  In keeping with that commitment, on October 17, 2016, in partnership with the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum, NICD held a Town Meeting and moderated panel entitled “Is Fear of Islam a Threat to the First Amendment?”  In addition to audience question and answer, live-streaming of the discussion enabled questions via Twitter.   Watch the video from the Town Meeting here.

Finally, NICD will convene a second Issue Forum following the election, in which participants will assess what most needs to be done to achieve progress on this issue in 2017 and beyond.  In particular, participants will consider specific action steps in light of the new political context.

Impact

The “Combating Anti-Muslim Speech and Behavior” Issue Forum brought together 43 religious leaders, journalists, civic leaders, and elected officials in civil discourse about a critical challenge facing our nation.  The working session was a rare opportunity for Muslim/non-Muslim communication and engagement.  In particular, non-Muslim journalists increased their understanding of the prejudices, assumptions and challenges that arise in the every-day coverage of this topic.

Following the event, participants published powerful statements.  Rem Rieder, Editor-at-Large and media columnist at USA TODAY wrote:

“Clearly fear of terrorism is real and not unfounded; Muslim extremists — and those expressing support for them — have been responsible for horrendous crimes. But, sadly, violent extremism comes in a wide variety of flavors in our society.

There's no doubt we have a problem. But what can we do to solve it?

In a welcome effort to find out, the National Institute for Civil Discourse this week staged a conference that brought together concerned people from a variety of disciplines…in an effort to shed some light on an intractable and disturbing problem. Three journalists also were on hand, and I was lucky enough to be one of them.

To no one's surprise, the get-together did not achieve a stunning breakthrough, a magic bullet to eliminate such bigotry overnight. The session was more the beginning of an important conversation: The group will reassemble in the first quarter of next year to continue its deliberations.”  Read the full article here.  

Participant Bob Roberts, founding and Senior Pastor of a 2,000-member church in Texas co-wrote an opinion piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Many Americans understand that hatred of Muslims is an assault on American ideals. We’ve spent our lives working in different spheres — one of us is an evangelical Christian pastor, the other a retired U.S. Marine general — but we’ve both seen firsthand how Islamophobia diminishes us all and weakens our country.

…These debates are understandably intense and full of emotion, but emotion should never lead us to turn our backs on the values that have made us strong as a people and have made us a light for the world. Millions of Americans share a passionate commitment to our founding ideals, and no ideal is more foundational than freedom of religion. It is this freedom that allows us to practice our faith without from government interference and that has formed a society of astonishing religious pluralism. That’s America, a place where people are free to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience.”  Read the full article here.

Resources

List of participants in the Issue Forum.

Examples of recent media coverage of the topic:

Research cited in this report:

Examples of promising programs identified by participants:

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/01/29/the-political-divide-on-...