Originally Published in The Cleveland Plain Dealer on March 10th, 2017
NORTH CANTON, Ohio — It’s easier to blur the lines about what is and what isn’t acceptable speech about a certain group of people if they are just an abstract concept. This situation prevails in America, in which, when some individuals refer to Muslims, they are speaking not about real people but ideas. Hateful sentiments and labels regarding this group are easier to promulgate if they are thought of as an inanimate category, not a living reality.
This has existential consequences, as the number of hate crimes in America has exploded since President Donald Trump was sworn into office, be it anti-Semitism, anti-LGBT, or Islamophobia. And overall, the response of the administration has been extremely weak, with little and slow communication to the affected communities.
So how can we bring Islam to life? How can the never-ending conversation about Islamic terrorism be changed for the better? How can we address the implications of a Pew Research poll from 2016 that found that more than 60 percent of Americans do not actually know a Muslim?
The solution is actually quite simple. Meet a Muslim.
Don’t know how?
This Saturday, members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in their 70 chapters will head to their respective cities in order to bring Islam to life. This nationwide initiative is there for the sole purpose of narrowing the gap in intimacy that exists between too many Americans and Muslims.
Members of the Cleveland chapter will also be participating by spreading out in various locations in downtown Cleveland and holding up signs that say, “Meet A Muslim! Ask Me Anything!”
I implore you to ask one of us, “Does Islam actually denigrate women to a lower status than men?”
You are likely to hear about a number of Quranic verses recited to you that exhort the equity of women and men such as, “Whoso acts righteously, whether male or female … We will surely bestow on such their reward according to the best of their works” (16:98).
Or you might listen to a number of recorded Ahadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) like, “The best among you is the one who is best in the treatment of his wife” or “Paradise lies at the feet of the mother.”
You might learn that it was actually a Muslim woman who founded the world’s first university (Al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, in 859 AD).
Statements by Donald Trump during his campaign about Muslims are regarded by the local Muslim community as a possibly ominous sign of things to come in his presidency, but there is also hope that the election rhetoric will fade or prompt an awakening within their ranks.
Similar questions or concerns like these may exist in your mind, and to move forward, it is essential that there is an increased awareness and understanding of Islam. That is why I encourage even those who agree that the majority of Muslims are peaceful to come out, as there is a good chance you still have your reservations.
Even though Muslims only make up roughly 1 percent of America’s population, the sheer amount of controversy due to issues like Muslim immigration, refugee crises, and international terrorist organizations makes it is necessary for everyone to have the right facts.
And while the situation may not seem to affect you directly, it’s extremely important to recognize that it’s not far from you. According to the Southern Law Poverty Center, Ohio is ranked 8th in the country in terms of most hate groups. The Greater Cleveland area itself has four prominent groups.
As President John F. Kennedy used to remind us, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Therefore, I urge all of my fellow Clevelanders to play their role and ask any and all questions you may have about Islam to the Muslims who want to practically eradicate the problems at hand.
When you learn the answers, the knowledge multiplies, as you can then educate your peers about the essence of what true Islam actually teaches. Then, they will also educate those around them.
In this way, the truth may even trickle down to the real extremists in our country who do wish to hurt us and ignite the flames of division and sectarianism in America.
Labeeb Ahmad is vice chairman of the Muslim Writers Guild of America and secretary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association of Cleveland.