Muslims are the fastest-growing religious group in the world, but in the United States Islam is often viewed negatively because of constant news about terrorism.
For the average Muslim who seeks peace and security as much as anyone else, that can be both sad and frustrating.
“I don’t think we always do a good job of telling our story,” says Fadel Al Mheiri, an Emirati filmmaker and author of the historical novel “Kingdom of Peacocks – Mists of Time.”
“We are just people and we have the same struggles as anyone else. But the extremists have been able to drive the narrative and that gives non-Muslims the wrong impression about the religion and the people who follow it.”
As a result, Americans tend to take a skeptical view of Muslims, more so than they do of adherents to the other major religions. In 2014, the Pew Research Center asked Americans to rate eight religious groups on what Pew called a “feeling thermometer” with a scale of zero to 100.
Zero was the coldest, most negative rating, while 100 was the warmest and most positive.
Muslims ranked the lowest of the eight with a rating of 40, just below atheists, who scored 41. Jews, Catholics, evangelical Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Mormons all were viewed much more warmly, Pew reported.
Al Mheiri doesn’t find those results surprising. Too often, when Muslims make the news in the United States and around the world, it’s for violent acts by extremists.
Through his storytelling – both in film and in print – Al Mheiri wants to change the perception that Muslims have in the non-Muslim world.
“I think it’s our responsibility – my responsibility – to give a voice to the other side and let people know that what they see in the news isn’t representative of Muslims,” Al Mheiri says. “But I also encourage non-Muslims to take the initiative and learn all they can about the religion, because knowledge paves the way to understanding.”
To begin exploring Islam and get past the stereotypes perpetuated in the media, he suggests that non-Muslims:
- Start with online research. This is the digital era, so information that can help educate people is just two or three clicks away. Personal research is always a good first step to learning. Just make sure the internet sources are legitimate, because the web has plenty of misinformation as well. Once they begin exploring, non-Muslims can find a wealth of material about what Muslims truly believe.
- Just ask. The best way to eliminate any mystery is to have a conversation, and most Muslims welcome sincere interest in and questions about their beliefs. Al Mheiri says not long ago in Washington, D.C., he met with a group from Indiana. “I got these great questions about ISIL and about why things are happening the way they are,” he says. “We talked about why the media focuses so much on negative things about Islam and why average Muslims are being silent.”
- Visit a mosque. Check with a nearby mosque about the possibility of paying a visit to learn more. Sometimes mosques hold events, such as open houses, where non-Muslim community members are invited with the express purpose of getting to know their Muslim neighbors and learning more about the religion.
Al Mheiri likes to point out that he was born and raised in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, which he describes as a beacon of hope and prosperity that serves as a counterpoint to all the extremist and violent acts committed in the name of Islam around the world.
Good things are happening in the UAE that could give Americans a different image of Muslims, he says, but they either aren’t reported by the news media in the West or at least don’t get the level of attention that negative news does.
“I suspect, for example, that a lot of Americans aren’t aware that the United Arab Emirates just recently appointed the first female speaker of its parliament,” he says.
That was Dr. Amal Al Qubaisi, elected to the post in November.
Ultimately, Al Mheiri urges non-Muslims to resist allowing extremists to color their view of an entire religion and an entire people.
“You have all these young and foolish people who know hardly a thing about the foundations and principles of Islam who are recruited by ISIL,” he says. “Many of them have barely left street-life thuggery, drugs or a teenage life engrossed in popular culture and music. Then all of a sudden they are off to the alleged Islamic state to wage jihad.”
They become the face of the religion while the vast majority of Muslims who live quiet, productive lives become marginalized or worse, become the target of suspicion because of how they look or what they believe.
It worries Al Mheiri when he hears presidential candidates such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz talk about banning all Muslims or monitoring their neighborhoods. He would like to see more people in the West play a part in helping to make sure such political rhetoric doesn’t get the kind of attention that it has in the past. He also believes the media can do a better job of correcting the misconceptions so many people have about Muslims and Arabs.
But Al Mheiri also says that political leaders and the news media aren’t the only ones who can make a difference.
“Each of us needs to do all we can to understand the lives and beliefs of others,” Al Mheiri says. “It’s important that we see each other as real people and not as the stereotypes that can drive us apart rather than bring us together.”