SOURCE: Online Athens: American Muslims often get the kind of treatment once reserved for blacks and Jews, dehumanized groups that also were the victims of racial and ethnic prejudice and violence, according to University of Georgia religion professor Alan Godlas.
But what many of us Americans think about Muslims stems from misinformation, from outright lies to just incomplete facts or errors in thinking, the religion professor said in a “Dialogue in Diversity”, sponsored by UGA’s Office of Institutional Diversity.
As a result, many Americans believe things that just aren’t true about Muslims, he said. Many people believe Islam is inherently violent, or anti-democratic, or that the religion oppresses women and is opposed to modern values.
As with those other dehumanized groups, Muslims are seen by many as something like savages or animals, frightening and threatening.
But a fundamental teaching of Islam is that people should strive to be kind and generous, he said.
The religion professor, himself a Muslim, recently talked with about three dozen UGA students and workers, gathered to discuss how people can actually use emotion and bias to learn and teach about Islam.
Somewhere between 2 million and 6 million Americans are of the Muslim faith, Godlas said.
Some of the earliest Americans were Muslim — 10 to 20 percent of the slaves shipped here from Africa, he said.
Another wave of adherents came in the 1930s with the Black Muslims, or Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad — though many of their beliefs and practices differed from traditional Islam, he said.
More Muslims came to America beginning with a reform of federal immigration laws in the 1950s, he said.
In the years since the terrorist attacks of 2001, hate crimes against American Muslims have “skyrocketed,” although they’re still a small percentage of American hate crimes overall, he said. In one headline-making case last year, a New York woman was charged with murder for pushing a Hindu man under a train in an elevated subway station because she thought he was a Muslim, according to New York authorities.
Godlas quoted Gen. Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state under President George W. Bush.
After Powell endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008 on national television, Powell said he was troubled to hear leaders in his party suggest that Obama is a Muslim, and therefore could be associated with terrorism.
In the first place, Obama is a Christian, not a Muslim, Powell said.
And even if he were, it shouldn’t matter, he said.
“This is not the way we should be doing it in America,” said Godlas, quoting Powell.
On a large screen at the front of a UGA meeting room, Godlas projected the same photo Powell had shared on TV’s “Meet the Press” five years ago today.
The image shows a mother embracing her son’s gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery. Buried under a Muslim headstone at Arlington Cemetery, the 20-year-old from New Jersey was awarded the Bronze Star after being killed in 2007 in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
There were few Muslims in the discussion group, and at least one had never known a Muslim person. Others had spent time in Muslim homes in Turkey and other predominantly Muslim countries.
Godlas asked them to focus on the negative emotions that go along with our biases, the method Godlas prescribes for teaching about anti-Muslim prejudice.
“Because one person does something, we don’t fear every white man,” observed one member of the UGA discussion group.
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