A group of social workers, mental health professionals and teachers gathered recently to learn what Islamophobia is and the harm it can do.
The presentation was part of a series the United Way of Central Minnesota offers on child and youth mental health. The session was so popular it was moved from United Way offices to the St. Cloud Public Library.
A few minutes into the talk, a man in one of the front rows raised his hand.
He asked one of the presenters to quote a particular passage from the Quran. Then he quickly quoted another passage, one he implied promoted violence. Aren’t you worried about this, he asked of the presenter.
Before he could finish, a woman in front row raised her hand: Can I stop you for a minute? That’s not what the session is about. We came to learn what Islamophobia is about.
The audience erupted in applause.
The man protested, saying he just came to learn more information.
That’s when the presenter, St. Cloud State University professor Consoler Teboh, tried to refocus the conversation.
You saw the hand clapping, Teboh said. That attitude about the Quran is not too popular in this crowd. We want to find a way to coexist with our neighbors.
No, Teboh added, he hoped the questioner would stay, hoping he’d learn something.
Teboh continued. There are plenty of passages advocating violence in the Bible that could prove worrisome in isolation. It’s not fair to judge an entire religion practiced billions of people by stringing a few passages together.
With that, Teboh and fellow SCSU professor Sylvester Lamin, whose academic focus is social work, picked up the presentation.
The entire incident was a pretty good example of behavior Muslims encounter every day, incidents of varying degrees of Islamophobia.
Fueled by misinformation, fear-mongering, misunderstanding and distrust, Islamophobia has real consequences. The professors defined it as an exaggerated fear, hatred or hostility toward Muslims. It’s a hate that the Muslim children and families experience often.
Look around you, the professors suggested to the group. There are incidents of Islamophobia happening all over the state.
Pointing to the audience, they said, You probably witness incidents of Islamophobia in Central Minnesota every day.
On the screen is a photo of a Minnesota license plate, customized to read “FMUSLMS.” The plate made the social media rounds last February.
To people outside the state, it was proof that Minnesota was racist and hostile. To many Minnesotans, it was proof that Islamophobia is alive and blatant. The outrage resulted in the revocation of the license plate.
The professors continued, highlighting incidents of harassment, institutional discrimination and hateful language in other areas of the state: Perham, Minneapolis, Bagley, Rochester.
Then there’s St. Cloud. Teboh and Lamin highlighted the following incidents and ongoing problems:
- Ongoing “white cloud” sentiment that suggests the area is under siege by an influx of Muslims.
- Resistance to the construction of a mosque and Islamic center on the south side of St. Cloud.
- Confederate flags seen on trucks, driving through neighborhoods on SCSU move-in day.
- Rumors on Facebook, including one that a Muslim cashier refused to serve a woman because she was wearing a cross.
- Vandalism, repeatedly, of area mosques and Somali-owned shops.
- Bullying and harassment at Technical High School and other incidents in St. Cloud schools, including one that resulted in a walkout.
The possible impacts of Islamophobia? Physical abuse and other attacks, erosion of multicultural ideals, isolation and exclusion, racial profiling, restraining and banning of groups.
The professors warned us to question our stereotypes and investigate where our knowledge was lacking.
Did you know, for instance, that Muslims have been in the U.S. before it was the U.S.? That all Muslims don’t practice Islam the same way, or have the same beliefs? That Islam is just as varied and diverse as Christianity and other religions?
The presenters warned people to not confuse religious extremists with the entire religion. Most Christians would agree that the KKK is not the example for all of Christianity. Nor should extremists in Islam be held up as the having views of the average population.
Teboh gave an example: Growing up in Africa, if he were to make assumptions about the U.S., what would the people be like? Like the people on the Jerry Springer show.
“If I don’t give you a chance to understand you for you, I’d think you’re all like Jerry Springer,” he said.
Put another way, everyone has an accent, if heard from an outside perspective.
The professors asked the crowd to think about what days off of school students get. Christmas and Easter, Christian-centered holidays. But what about Ramadan or Eid? Muslims may not be able to observe their religious holidays as they wish, because the society they live in isn’t built to observe their holidays.
The presenters posed another question, about the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. In Muslim-majority areas, the call can be heard throughout the city five times a day, coming from the mosques. Noise ordinances don’t allow that here, the professors point out. Muslims can adapt, setting alarms on their phone, or having leaders or family members call out the adhan.
From the audience, a woman raised her hand. Are the same rules applied to church bells? No, they’re not, the professors answered.
Aha, the presenters said. If there’s one thing you learn today, it’s to look at your life, your surroundings from the point of view of an outsider. What assumptions do institutions make? What traditions do they adhere to?
The bottom line: Question your assumptions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Spend time with cultures you don’t understand.
The cure for Islamophobia? Education. Hate is learned, Lamin said. So it can be unlearned. Replace misunderstandings and misconceptions with knowledge. Focus on similarities while honoring the diversity of belief.
The crowd has a big challenge, the professors said. As part of human services groups, they have an opportunity to make a change and work against Islamophobia.
We can replace a generation of hate with a generation of kindness, Lamin said.
Some prescriptions for the group to do so: continue educating on cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, fight for social justice and work to end discrimination and oppression.
How can we do that? The professors offered some suggestions. Participate in community organizations. Get out of your comfort zone yourself and experience new things. Make changes at the administrative level and make sure an organization reflects the population it serves. That means hiring more Muslim and Somali teachers and social workers, and seeking out diverse board members.
Make those changes systemic by advocating for policy changes to reinforce all of this. Use evidence-based research to move forward. Consider where the gaps might lie in our community. For example, if our apartment stock is mostly one- and two-bedrooms, where is housing for the larger families typical of some cultures?
Finally, the presenters said, help people help themselves. When groups have access to resources and support, they can thrive.
Lamin and Teboh ended with a final thought from Gov. Mark Dayton: “This is Minnesota and you have every right to be here. Anybody who cannot accept your right to be here should find another state.”