Amid much discussion by American presidential candidates about Islam this past week, a previously-planned forum, “Being Muslim in Alabama,” was held in Birmingham, Alabama. The majority of the audience was not Muslim, suggesting that many there were eager to understand what being Muslim in the South, especially in Alabama, entails.
Birmingham Jewish Federation staff members Richard Friedman, Daniel Odrezin and myself went to the forum to hear more about the challenges our local Muslim community is facing.
Panelists included Southern Poverty Law Center’s Senior Fellow Mark Potok, Council on American Islamic Relations-Alabama Executive Director Khaula Hadeed, and Birmingham Islamic Society President Ashfaq Taufique.
Mark, who kicked off the discussion, started his remarks by saying in no way was he suggesting that radical Islamic groups such as ISIS do not pose a threat. In fact, he said, they pose a huge threat, but he went on to discuss the challenges and threats that the American Muslim community faces domestically.
According to Mark, there are 34 anti-Muslim groups in the US and hate crimes against Muslims have skyrocketed since the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris in January of 2015. The Islamophobia that is growing through the US is taking its toll on Muslims and it’s not just Muslims who are affected by these violent attacks and vicious words.
All three panelists acknowledged how today’s polarized political climate has only made things worse for not only the Muslim community, but also other minority groups. When there is a 24 hour news cycle, one of the panelists said, you can read any hateful thing about anyone at anytime you want.
We, as Jewish Federation staff, already were somewhat aware of the issues that the Muslim community is dealing with. Several weeks ago, we met with Muslim leaders who expressed how difficult it is at times to be Muslim in Alabama. They feel singled out and sense many non-Muslim Alabamians are wary of them.
They recognized they have to do a better job of reaching out to the broader Alabama community as our Jewish community has done so skillfully for decades. Coincidentally, the night before our meeting, in a reflection of this realization, the Birmingham Islamic Society joined St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center in co-sponsoring a Holocaust education program at the church.
These Muslim leaders also realize that they have to be more visible in condemning terror acts committed by radical jihadists in the name of Islam. We told them that if they do, and decide to issue public and forthright statements of condemnation when such terror attacks occur, that we would run those statements in our Federation newsletter. They appreciated this gesture.
Ashfaq, local Islamic Society president and a participant in the public panel, was one of the leaders with whom we met.
During our private meeting, Ashfaq expressed his desire to learn from the Jewish community and understand how we combated anti-Semitism and rallied together to advance ourselves in a time when many did not want Jews to succeed. While, yes, we do disagree on certain issues, we live in the same city and must live in peace.
At the forum, Ashfaq noticed our presence and thanked us for coming. “The Jewish Federation and our community are working on a project together, acknowledging that there are some international issues that we will not agree on,” Ashfaq explained to the room. He was referring to a Jewish-Muslim-Christian project our two groups are doing in partnership with a local church.
During the question and answer session, most of the questions reflected the audience’s desire to understand how they could better help the Muslim community during this difficult time. At this time, I became especially proud when the moderator read a submission from our Federation Executive Director Richard Friedman which said, “Bigotry against Muslims is not just a Muslim problem. It’s an American problem.”
As the moderator finished reading Richard’s statement, I looked around the room and saw almost everyone nodding their heads in agreement. Yes, this bigotry is affecting the Muslim population in a profound and detrimental way, but it also has the potential to affect all of us as Americans, and especially as Jews. If a minority is being targeted during tense times, it means that ANY minority, including the Jewish community, could be the next target.
Because of this, we must be extremely diligent in combating bigotry, while still being aware of the differences and disagreements that we may have with certain communities. That is exactly what our Federation’s approach is with the Muslim community.
Additionally, Richard’s comment unites us as human beings, especially those of us here in Birmingham who want to live in harmony with one another. Yes, the Muslim community is being singled out. But because it is an American problem, we can all stand by each others’ side, willing to lend a helping hand should a need arise.
After the 90 minute forum ended, I walked over to Ashfaq to tell him how much I learned from the program. “Thank you so much for coming,” he said warmly. “It means so much to me.”
I left the forum glad I went and thinking the following thought.
As the famous poem by Martin Niemoller, a German anti-Nazi theologian and Lutheran pastor, said: “…Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Let us hope that we always have someone to speak for us and that we are willing to do the same for others.