Times are tough for American Muslims, but there are also plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
First, the bad news. Organized bigotry against Muslims continues to thrive.
In Arizona, about 250 protesters recently assembled in front of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix for a rally designed to intimidate Muslims. Many of the demonstrators came bearing arms.
Jon Ritzheimer, the rally’s organizer — a man who has a fondness for wearing a T-shirt that says “F--- Islam” — told CNN that “true Islam is terrorism” and that “the core values of Islam” are “what I really hate.” He said he organized the protest along with a poorly attended “Draw Muhammad” contest in a gesture of solidarity with an earlier “Draw Muhammad” event in Garland, Texas, that ended when gunmen from Arizona attacked it and were shot dead by police.
The Phoenix mosque is loosely connected to the assault in Texas, since the two assailants, Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, had attended services there in the past, though neither man had been to the Phoenix center for months before their heinous act. By staging his protest, Ritzheimer was trying to assign collective blame to all Muslims for the actions of two criminals.
But the good news is what also happened at the rally. About an equal number of counterprotesters came to support the Phoenix Muslim community, brandishing signs that said things like “love is stronger than hate.”
And then, in a breakthrough moment for peace, Usama Shami, president of the Islamic Center, invited anyone who wanted to join him inside the mosque.
Jason Leger, one of the anti-Islam protesters, was changed by the experience.
“It was something I’ve never seen before,” Leger told the Washington Post. “I took my shoes off. I kneeled. I saw a bunch of peaceful people. We all got along.”
It shows what a strong advocate for peace like Usama Shami can do. Polls indicate that almost two-thirds of Americans have never met a Muslim. Islam is reduced for many to the terrible images we see on TV or hear on the news. But polls also indicate that those who know Muslims personally are more likely to hold positive opinions about Islam.
And the good news continues. The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a ruling siding with Samantha Elauf, a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, in her employment discrimination lawsuit against Abercrombie & Fitch. In 2008, when she was 17, Elauf had applied for a job with the clothing retailer and was denied employment because her head scarf, which she wears for religious reasons, didn’t conform to the company’s “look policy” of “classic East Coast collegiate style.” (Abercrombie & Fitch has since changed its dress-code policy.)
At the core of this case is the legal concept of “reasonable accommodation.” If companies can reasonably accommodate different people who can do the same job, they cannot refuse to hire them simply because of their differences. Elauf’s victory is important not only for Muslims who wear religious attire but for everyone whose rights are protected under reasonable accommodation, including disabled people and pregnant women.
There is a clear lesson from these examples. We need to foster inclusion. In forging an inclusive union, we not only protect all of our rights, but we simultaneously strengthen our capacity to live together.
Moustafa Bayoumi, a professor of English at Brooklyn College, is author of “This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror,” forthcoming from NYU Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.