Over the weekend of March 13, an article appeared in the Brookfield Patch written by Rory Linnane titled: . The gist was that the Eagle Forum of Wisconsin was meeting to rally Brookfield residents to oppose the building of a mosque in Brookfield.
As Ms. Linnane reported, members of the Brookfield-Elm Grove Interfaith Council and the Milwaukee Islamic Society also attended the meeting held at the Brookfield Library. As reported, what started out as a discussion concerning zoning and traffic issues soon became a debate over religious and political ideology. One of the things I took away from reading the piece is that the Eagle Forum led residents were not only apprehensive about having a mosque in their community, but sounded as if they were actually frightened by such a possibility.
As a member of a religious and cultural minority, in my case Judaism; we are always reminded that we are a small minority in a much larger community. The Islamic community is no different and only represents an estimated 12 to 15 thousand in the entire Milwaukee Metro area. That’s even smaller than the Jewish Community. Keeping in mind that we are such small minorities we fully understand our vulnerabilities, but by and large we go about our business free from molestation from the majority.
However, since 9/11 the Muslin communities have drawn special attention and the majority of it has been negative.
I can’t hardly go online or pick up some piece of media print without a story about Muslims with a good share of it being highly inflammatory and directed toward citizens to be beware of Islam and their conspiracy to change our nation to some sort of Islamic theocracy.
The issue du jour is currently the imposition of Sharia Law. Christian fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalist clergy are attempting to incite public opinion against Islam because there is a supposed concerted attempt by Muslims to modify US law and to incorporate Sharia Law. What are presented are the most extreme incidences of Sharia such as Honor Killings, female mutilation, and extreme paternalism and misogyny. Strange that for them to cite these examples, they search the world and most of the incidences are very isolated. One must remember, just as Christianity is not a single doctrine, dogma and theology; neither is Islam. It is open to interpretation and some choose to interpret it more rigidly and others more liberally.
To label Islam with only one label, is a great disservice and minimizes the richness of their thought, religion and the culture.
I think the greatest source of fear and apprehension comes from the Christian majority’s lack of knowledge and understanding of Islam. Muslims represent the “other” in our society. Just as Jews have always represented the ever present “other” in Christian society; Muslims, unlike assimilated Jews, are relative newcomers to North America.
Up until 1993, with the first bombing of the World Trade Center, Muslims represented one of the background minorities that made up the crazy quilt of American society. Except in the largest metropolitan areas, most people never had seen a Muslim, let alone met one. Rarer still was finding anyone who actually knew Muslims and had interpersonal relationships with them. Much of the perception of Muslims and Islam in general has been generated by the media, most of which has always been associated with negative news reports and narratives.
It is very much part of human nature to be wary of the stranger and foreigner. We live in a society that is dominated by ethnocentrism, typically manifested as “we” and “they." Under normal circumstances, the first generation of immigrants hold the status of the foreigner with each succeeding generation becoming more assimilated resulting in eventual acceptance as one of “us."
However, with practicing Muslims, they retain their uniqueness long after first and second generations and never quite shed the mantle of the foreigner. Ultraorthodox Jewish groups also experience the same phenomena. The culture and significance is manifested by looking different, following unique and foreign customs, and remaining isolated by remaining closely grouped together. Islam and Judaism, which share Semitic roots and are of oriental origins, center themselves around the family and their cultural community. This tendency to remain isolated doesn’t make it easy for the outsider to create normal relationships.
As Muslim communities grow and expand beyond their initial cultural communities, there will be more and more contact between the Muslim and the non-Muslim. It is up to the majority to reach out and normalize relations with the new residents to their communities. If this is not done, continuing tensions will remain and the distrust will in time give way to hatred. Hatred will eventually lead to radicalization, which in its own terms leads to the kind of violence that we all want to avoid and fear.
I call on those with the power to end this campaign of dehumanization and distrust.