Around 250 attendees filled Union South’s Varsity Hall Friday for a Muslim Students Association event to raise awareness of what they believe is a nation-wide misunderstanding of Islam.
Titled “Understanding Islamophobia in America,” the event was meant to draw attention to other historical struggles for rights and to discuss potential strategies for countering it, MSA President Siddique Akram said in an email The Badger Herald.
The Muslim-Jewish Volunteer Initiative and the Lubar Institute for the Study of Abrahamic Religions also sponsored the event.
Keynote speaker Ahmed Rehab, who is the executive director of the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and a contributor to The Huffington Post, defined Islamophobia as a “form of bigotry … an expression, a statement or act of bigotry [against Islam and or Muslims].”
Rehab spoke on how perceptions of Islam and Muslims in America are shaped as a result of poor exposure to the religion and its followers.
“It’s been this series of conflicts that have been the exclusive introduction to a large group of people who don’t know anything about that religion,” Rehab said.
According to Rehab, many groups form and spread bigoted messages about Islam due to poor exposure to Islam and Muslims. These messages of hate spread through various channels, and without strong advocacy for the whole of non-violent Muslims, these claims create dangerous generalizations about Muslims, Rehab said.
“We cannot pretend this overwhelming majority [of peaceful Muslims] does not exist; it exists, it is there,” Rehab said. “If we become blind to it, that’s our problem.”
University of Wisconsin associate professor of law Asifa Quraishi-Landes spoke on how Shariah law, the moral code of Islam, is misunderstood by many politicians and Americans as a threat to American rights.
Quraishi-Landes explained that Shariah presents non-uniform guidelines for Islamic living. When a specific fiqh, a set of laws, clash with laws in the United States, Muslims would like to be able to opt out of the laws that conflict with fiqh or be accommodated, according to Quraishi-Landes.
Many groups opposing Shariah have taken these sentiments for inclusion out of context and speak with complete ignorance to how Shariah works, Quraishi-Landes said.
Daniel Tutt, outreach director at Unity Productions Foundation, detailed his experience interviewing Americans in support of Muslims living and practicing in the United States.
“Islam is so ingrained as negative … there is a large percentage of those who accept that, [who] still believe Muslims are bad,” Tutt said.
Other speakers included Associate Director of the Middle East Studies Program Jennifer Loewenstein, who highlighted current events that have shaped perceptions of Muslims, and UW alumnus Rashid Dar, who shared his experience working at the New York City Park 51 Mosque, commonly known as the “Ground Zero mosque,” which was at the center of a controversy in 2010.
Two UW students also presented poetry readings at the beginning and middle of the event.
According to Akram, no specific events had influenced the planning of the event. However, the message still remains to be an important one in Madison and Wisconsin.
“People oftentimes find things that are unfamiliar to be imposing, and I think the unfamiliarity and misinformation have had a similar impact with regards to Islam,” Akram said. “I believe informative events such as [“Understanding Islamophobia in America”] can go a long way in clearing up misconceptions and empowering attendees.”