How Little Does America Know About Islam?

Pledge of allegiance, dollar bills, national anthem, politics, court, army… In a country where God is literally everywhere, it’s hard to believe that people could be intolerant towards any religion.  So I found it disturbing when I heard that a NFL player was penalized for praying on the field in celebration of a touchdown. I thought America usually celebrated the expression of faith…but guess what religion Husain Abdullah was practicing?

If Islam is at the heart of many controversies in America, it has to do with the fact that Islamist organizations have been the number one enemies of the country for over a decade, but also because there are very few Muslim people living in the USA. Islam is a subject often surrounded by not only fear, but ignorance – aka the perfect combo for discrimination. Although the NFL quickly responded that the penalization for praying was an error, this tells a lot about where America stands not only with the Muslim world, but its own Muslim citizens. Beyond the obvious double-standard experienced by Muslims when it comes to public religious demonstrations, this incident raises another crucial question: how little does America know about Islam?

Judging by Bill Maher’s recent debate on the subject, I would say very little. One of his guests, self-claimed “very well educated on Islam” author Sam Harris started the conversation with the delightful: “Islam is the Mother lode of bad ideas.” No wonder why Ben Affleck called his words “gross and racist.” While I am not a religious person myself and agree with Bill Maher on the importance of challenging all beliefs, I think there is something deeply discriminatory in arguing that the “vast majority” of Muslims adheres to fundamentalist views.

If you were born and raised in America, chances are you didn’t grow up around many Muslim people as they only represent 0.8% of the population. You probably mostly heard about their religion via the news coverage of what has been called the “war on terror,”and that’s OK – as long as you don’t let that shape your thought process and refer to an imaginary “average Muslim” based on biased information.

Did the referee even know what the athlete was doing when he penalized him? Had he ever seen a Muslim pray? Was his decision based on hate or ignorance? I guess both possibilities make me equally sad, although ignorance can always be cured. Like my optimistic friend Wissam Hamou, a French-Algerian PHD student in regenerative biology and proud Mipster (Muslim Hipster,) pointed out: “There are different ways of being ignorant. In America, I feel like people ignore what Islam truly is because they haven’t been exposed to it in their daily lives. So when given the opportunity, they will try to educate themselves, and I think that’s a good thing.” So everything isn’t lost, but the challenge lies in creating opportunities to learn.

From the British students who started the anti-ISIS campaign #Notinmyname to Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, I could name many Muslims who are fighting against prejudice towards their religion, but also extremism within it. It’s just frustrating that the very people flagged as progressive in America fail to give them a voice.

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