Here’s a puzzling finding from the recent Gallup Poll on the attitudes of Americans towards different religions.
Only two percent of Americans say they have a great deal of knowledge about Buddhism, and 14 percent report feeling some prejudice towards Buddhists. Meanwhile, only three percent of Americans claim they have a great deal of knowledge about Islam, and yet 43 percent claim some prejudice towards Muslims.
How is it that a little knowledge about Buddhism correlates with broadly positive feelings towards Buddhists, but a little knowledge about Islam is linked to frighteningly negative views of Muslims?
Here’s my theory. In the minds of most people, entities as abstract and amorphous as religions are represented by something more concrete and manageable: the symbolic individual.
Ask folks to name a famous Buddhist and they’ll say the Dalai Lama. Ask them about a famous Muslim and what name comes to mind? You got it. Public enemy number one: Osama bin Laden.
So how do we combat the prejudice that nearly half of America feels towards Muslims? Introduce them to another face of Islam.
Meet my friend Rami Nashashibi, who I believe is the most impressive Muslim of my generation. Rami is a father and a husband, a PhD student at the University of Chicago and the Executive Director of the Inner City Muslim Action Network (IMAN). IMAN is a community-based nonprofit on the South Side of Chicago that works for social justice, delivers a range of direct services, and cultivates the arts in urban communities.
Like many American Muslims, Rami gets the primacy of the Osama narrative. When asked about prejudice against Muslims recently, he said, “I think the American population, all of us, are susceptible to what happens on a daily basis on the news. And quite frankly, over the last couple of months the news hasn’t been quite great when you think about the three-second sound bite you hear that talks about Muslims.”
But Rami is exceptional because he gets that there is more to be done than shout from the rooftops that this narrative is wrong. He dedicates his life to lifting up and acting on the shared values of service and community building between Islam and America. He says “The best antidote to apprehension, fear and mistrust comes from the uniquely American tradition, a uniquely Chicago tradition, of community engagement for real solutions around real problems.”
I hope the next time someone whispers Muslim in your ear, you think of Rami first.