Reaffirming American Values 2017 Convening

Reaffirming American Values: 
Combating Anti-Muslim Speech and Behavior
April 3-5, 2017; Washington, DC


In the aftermath of the toxic 2016 presidential election, the proposed ban on the immigration of Muslims, and heightened rhetoric targeting Muslims, the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD) brought together 39 religious leaders, academics, elected officials and communications professionals for a three day discussion to strengthen the relationships among groups in order to combat anti-Muslim speech and behavior and protect religious freedom. While a number of participants had attended NICD’s 2016 convening on this issue, new groups and individuals were added to broaden both the scope of the discussion as well as the potential reach post convening.

The forum focused on

• Exploring and understanding the current dynamics that are leading to an increase in anti-Muslim speech and behavior.
• Determining actions that could be taken by individual organizations to change the way Muslims are talked about and treated in this country.
• Exploring the potential for collective actions that could be taken to make a significant difference.
• Learning about work being done on messaging to reach the broad American public.

Working in small groups as well as in full session, participants identified leverage points, reviewed and discussed the latest available data, programs and messaging that are working, and explored ways to work together in the future.


The convening began with participants discussing both the concerns and hopes they brought to the table with regards to the issue of anti-Muslim bigotry.  Some of the common concerns included the erosion of civil liberties, the harmful effects of backlash on the American Muslim community, Islamophobic policies being enacted, and the difficulty in productively discussing legitimate concerns about terrorism without feeding in to harmful stereotypes about Muslims as a whole.  Meanwhile, the most common reason for hope was the existence of new and stronger alliances between Muslim and non-Muslim groups evoking stronger feelings of solidarity, as well as the massive popular mobilization and victories in the courts.  

Understanding the Issue – The Reality on the Ground

Meira Neggaz, Executive Director of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) shared their recently released poll data, Muslims at the Crossroads which found that Muslims disproportionately feel the negative effects of the political climate:

• More than two in five (42%) Muslims with children in K–12 school reported bullying of their children because of their faith, compared with 23% of Jews, 20% of Protestants, and 6% of Catholics.
• Muslims (38%) and Jews (27%) are most likely to express fear for their personal safety or that of their family from white supremacist groups as a result of the 2016 elections. This compares with 16% of people not affiliated with a faith, 11% of Protestants, and 8% of Catholics.
• Muslims are more than twice as likely (30%) as Jews (13%), Catholics and Protestants (11%) to be stopped at the border for additional screening.
• The majority of nonwhite Muslims (56% of black Muslims, 60% of Arab Muslims, and 63% of Asian Muslim) report some frequency of race-based discrimination in the last year.
• Muslims are most likely to consider bigotry and civil rights as the most important issue facing our country today.

Then representatives of several groups shared their views of the reality on the ground.  Abby Levine, Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, noted that now is the moment for deeper relationships and real honesty.  She shared examples of members of the Jewish community stepping forward and expressing their outrage about the proposed Muslim ban (19 Rabbis were arrested at the Trump Hotel, NY protesting the ban).   Abby also shared that Muslim-Jewish partnerships have sprung up all over the country.

Mohamed Elibiary, a former member of the Department of Homeland Security’s Advisory Committee, focused his remarks on his experience with the Texas State Legislature.  He shared his views on the differences within the Texas Republican Party as well as the work the legislature has been doing on restructuring the state’s intelligence assets. 

Political Perspective

US Representative Debby Dingell (MI) joined the convening, as she did in 2016, to share her perspective.  Michigan’s 12th Congressional District includes the City of Dearborn, often referred to as the Arab Capital of America. In talking about the president’s proposed ban on Muslims, she noted "While we all agree we need to provide for a strong national security, this approach is wrong, ineffective and jeopardizes the fundamental pillars of our constitution and the values that make this nation great: freedom of religion, compassion and justice." And she stated that the singling out of a specific population for discrimination is not only wrong, but compared it to one of the darkest periods in our nation's history - when thousands of Japanese-Americans were targeted and imprisoned in internment camps during World War II. She also expressed her concern about the lack of clarity on American foreign policy and urged participants to communicate how profiling and discrimination weakens US national security.

Case Studies:  Successful Strategies and Programs

• What problem did you see?
• What did you do?
• What was effective?
• What do you need to scale?
• How can others help?

Catherine Orsborn of Shoulder to Shoulder, which was founded in 2010 with 34 national denominations standing up against anti-Muslim efforts, noted that one of their key focus areas is a multi-faith rapid response network.  Part of the purpose of the group is to provide direct support to the Muslim community immediately after incidents like hate crimes, and to try and proactively shift the narrative to focus on the fact that anti-Muslim bigotry impacts us all and that the blame game used against Muslims simply isn’t who we want to be as Americans. They have also put together a tool kit for their diverse faith community on Islamophobia.

Jenan Mohajir spoke about the Interfaith Youth Core mission to make interfaith cooperation a norm in this country within a generation by focusing on college campuses.  They previously invested intensively in leadership development for a small number of young people but have shifted their model to reach students on over 400 college campuses across the country in order to scale faster.  They have also developed a model that engages university administrators and staff, and ensures that the religious unaffiliated (aka the “nones,” who are a growing segment of young people) have a seat at the table.

Zainab Chaudry, Spokeswoman for CAIR spoke about their Register Me First Campaign which was conceptualized to help harness the solidarity from Muslim allies in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.   They built a website which allies can visit and sign up to be connected and get involved with the activities of their local CAIR chapter.  They have found that this geographic targeting (by zip code) can present more specific opportunities for people who feel solidarity to do something in their local community.

Rabiah Ahmed with the Muslim Public Affairs Council discussed their strategic communications approach – Preaching Beyond the Choir - which is based in part on meeting people where they are.  She noted that Islamophobia is a concern for all of us and the efforts we’ve taken in the last 20 years haven’t shifted the needle enough as anti-Muslim sentiment is now higher than post 9/11 so we have to look at how we can change hearts and minds.  They have learned that it is important to tailor messages to your specific audiences and not simply frame the conversation the way we would like.  It is important to look at who the best messengers are and coordinate talking points across groups, and focus on communicating to the “malleable middle” of the American population.  MPAC also works in Hollywood to connect screenwriters to a plethora of stories about Muslims and to support Muslim actors. 

Participants reflected on some of the Key Themes and Features that helped make these cases successful:

• Networked collaboration (engaging “concentric circles” of partners at different levels)
• Awareness of context and adapting to the changing environments
• Tailoring different strategies to different levels of partnerships
• Smart use of media and social media
• Building relationships between crises
• Outreach to others

Participants brainstormed the ‘Best Ways to ‘Seize the Moment’ of unprecedented levels of solidarity toward American Muslims:

• Cooperate at the local level
• Help Muslim and non-Muslim Americans connect through common interests (ex:  cooking club, sports)
• “Name and fame” and follow up with leaders who speak out for inclusion (rather than naming and shaming culprits) 
• Find ways to introduce people who don’t know Muslim Americans to Muslim Americans
• Reaching out to those who disagree
• We have to learn to disagree while agreeing that Islamophobia is a shared challenge for all
• Data analytics for social media campaigns
• Try different things (grassroots groups, etc.) to help fight Islamophobia
• Give people meaningful tasks that can be localized
• Mapping this as a social movement
• Need to train people entering the movement

Proposed Collective Actions

The next session focused on actions individual organizations might take as well as discussing cooperating on potential collective actions.   Participants were asked to consider a specific program they had seen that has potential if it went to scale and identify resources currently available, as well as the challenges to taking it to scale.  

A number of interesting and creative ideas were raised during the small group discussion and participants voted on the collective action ideas presented.  The four ideas were:

• Webinar Series – a cost effective way of maintaining contact, sharing different areas of expertise, and could collectively get a national reach and broader audience.

• A Hollywood conference highlighting positive images of Muslims and combating stereotypes.

• Interfaith “staff swap” to allow people to share ideas as well as gain a deeper understanding of other organizations.  A concrete example of this approach was provided by the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund which noted they are placing young Sikh Americans of college age with various organizations in Washington this summer.

• Create a stronger web of organizations by connecting more local groups to existing national groups and local groups to each other.

Messaging to Each Other and the Broad Public

Ashley Houghton and Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons with ReThink Media explained that all advocacy is rooted in empathy and that with Islamophobia we still face two themes discussed at last year’s convening:  The role of fear and how to address /acknowledge that fear (instead of ignoring it).
Ashley noted that while the majority of politically charged rhetoric has been rejected, i.e. that all Muslims are bad, roughly half of Americans supported the proposed ban on Muslims entering the country because President Trump was behind it.

In addition to how the media is talking about Muslims, there is a need to promote a proactive message.  Rethink’s work suggests that the top message/frame received by most of the American public is Freedom of Religion:  the fact that no one should fear based on their religion.

Other well received messages are:

• We’re all stronger when we come together as Americans (United We Stand) and weaker when we are divided. 
• Terrorists’ acts must be addressed based on their specific facts not simply on the religion of those who commit them.
• We need to start talking more about our shared values as Americans and invoke America’s aspirational values.

The 3 Key Steps

1) Talk about shared values and that government shouldn’t tell anyone how to pray or whom to pray to
2) Invoke shared American aspirational values
3) Reassure the fearful by creating distance from radicals and terrorists with a strong pushback message in combination with our values

Plenary Discussion

Stranger in My Own Country, Mindy Finn, Stand Up Republic

1. Americanism: Fear of losing core, defining values that make America unique.
2. Race: Fear that demographic change is weakening community ties and excluding people.
3. Immigration: Fear of losing control of our borders and endangering ourselves.
4. Islam: Fear of letting people into the country who are hostile to America.

Their findings suggest that the recent rise in populism and nativism among voters is driven by feelings of disaffection and alienation from America’s core institutions and culture. These voters feel disconnected from government, community, and a “new” America they aren’t comfortable with. However, the research offers hope that targeted messages on pride and unity in America can create significant movement in key attitudes among these voters that may help fewer Americans feel like strangers in their own country.

Countering Dangerous Speech   Rachel Brown, Democracy Fund

Dangerous speech is speech with a special capacity to increase the likelihood that its audience will condone or participate in group-targeted harm.   There are five factors that help define dangerous speech – context; medium; speakers, message and audience. 

The question is often asked: why don’t we restrict such speech?  The answer is that it tends to bring more attention to the speaker and the message.  Restricted freedom of expression tends to backfire.
Dangerous speech is powerful because it influences attitudes, emotions, social norms, and behavior.  It needs to be counteracted, not just countered, and to do this you need to show the impact of such speech.

Political Perspective – Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA)

Representative Pramila Jayapal was elected to the US House in 2016 and represents the 7th District of Washington State.  She reminded us that the roots of Islamophobia are deep in our country’s history so it is not a recent phenomenon, but the fact that it is so publicly on display is recent.
There are many similarities with what happened after 9/11 and what is happening today.  She worked on the court case which sued the Bush Administration to stop deportation of Muslims.  President Bush, in the wake of policies that targeted Muslims after 9/11, did make an effort to differentiate between the policies and the rhetoric, she noted, and while it wasn’t necessarily well aligned, it was a very different rhetoric then we are experiencing today. We are in a whole new arena. 

The Congresswoman also spoke about her work with her freshmen colleagues and their Commitment to Civility.   She explained how they work to spend time together and to talk.  The evening before the event they had been to the Holocaust Museum.  She explained it as a very intense experience, and shared with us that she and her colleagues got into a discussion on immigration reform, an area she has a long work history with, and she said they realized that everyone in the room wanted immigration reform – regardless of party.  One colleague, a republican, who has one of the largest refugee populations in the country, explained that he was having a dinner with a Syrian family soon in his district as he felt if he had dinner with them and tweeted about it, he might be able to help his community look at the issue differently.

She feels that people are ‘awake’ today in a very different way and it gives her hope.  She had 1000 people at her recent town hall - they had to turn away a lot of others - as well as a huge number of people following on Face Book Live.  People feel the need for their voices to be heard, and so they are exercising their right to participate and this is very positive.
She believes that Americans have done their best work when we have organized at the grass roots, and feels we need to approach this issue in the same way in order to be successful. Her parting message was that we need to build the sense of country that was in place for every single one of us regardless of what we looked like or where we came from that we had after 9/11.

Looking Ahead:  The Policy Landscape and Its impact on our Communities

Arjun Sethi, Professor of National Security Law at Georgetown Law & Namira Islam, Muslim Arc.

Arjun believes that Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities are often criminalized.  With our shared values we can agree on equal protection under the law - i.e. the idea that you shouldn’t be profiled based on who you are or where you worship – and that we all have a right to due process, speech, and expression, and that worship rights shouldn’t be infringed upon unless there are extraordinary compelling circumstances.  Yet post 9/11, and even more so today, these basic freedoms are not extended to the vast majority of communities we are talking about.
A December 2014 anti-radical profiling guidance was reported to ban profiling in US but it actually contains large loopholes for profiling exemptions.   TSA, CBP and local and state law enforcement are outside its purview so they can profile on the basis of anything at all. 
Suspicious activity reporting also begs key questions – the initial question being what is considered suspicious activity?  We all have the right to go about our business unless there is a reasonable suspicion we did something wrong – but the problem is that some believe that a Muslim American woman wearing a hijab and taking pics of national monuments is itself suspicious. 
Namira noted that the current manifestation of Islamophobia-related rhetoric flattens an ethnically diverse religious group into a racial group. The prolonged heightened crisis mode the American Muslim community finds itself in does not allow space to plan for long term community development as everyone is too busy reacting to crisis and being a “community under siege.”
She also pointed out some of the everyday issues many Muslims are concerned about, including the fact that if they travel out of the country they face the possibility that they will not be allowed in.  We also need to think about finding partners who could help address the immediate needs in the community like bullying in school, mental health issues, etc.

Next Steps and Action Commitments

Tom Glaisyer with the Democracy Fund noted that we are all here for a reason.  This convening has allowed us to share our concerns and hopes and the implications of fall out on the Muslim community.  The information provided by ISPU and their latest poll, Rethink’s messaging work and the discussion on dangerous speech all remind us that informed dialogue is essential.

Looking beyond last year’s and this year’s convenings, Tom committed to looking at where we can go – i.e. follow up on some of the actions proposed over the last 3 days – and looking at facilitating a collaborative community to act upon these ideas of engaging Muslim and allied organizations together to combat this challenge.
Welton Gaddy, Rachel Brown and Nada Zohdy who are “inspirers, motivators and helpers” will be able to help participants follow up on these ideas. 

Work Still To Be Done

• Solidify commitments
• Review Proposed Collective Action Proposals (Page 4)
• Develop topics and dates for webinars which Democracy Fund will host
• Ensure continued communication and potential for collective action