Islam Online: Beyond Stereotypes: Learn about CAIR's New Initiative

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AMJAD ABDELKARIM: Can you please give us more information about CAIR’s new initiative and what it aims to accomplish?

AHMED REHAB: Thank you Amjad for starting us off with this question.

CAIR’s initiative, “Beyond Stereotypes”, was launched to educate media personnel whether they are reporters, editors, producers, or otherwise, about basic Islamic terms, practices, and issues. This project falls under the part of our mission statement that is “understanding Islam.”

CAIR believes that anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamophobia, whether inadvertent or malicious, prosper in the absence of accurate information about Muslims and Islam.

Generally speaking, once people become better informed, they tend to be less likely to engage in the charicaturing of Islam and Muslims.

Most people in the media are honest, hardworking men and women who desire to do the best job they can. As such, they welcome this initiative.

HUDA MUFLEH (United Kingdom): It’s nice to see Muslim organizations like CAIR getting more professional and advanced in their but I wonder if CAIR has ever done any media production about Islam and Muslims. I mean have you done any movie or Tv shows aiming to explain who Muslims are and what they stand for?

REHAB: Thanks for your question Huda.

CAIR is not a media production company; however we have commissioned the creation of PSA’s, or public service announcements, that are essentially short commercials that educate the public about a given matter. In our case that matter has been Muslims and Islam.

In doing so, CAIR’s goal is not to proselytize, but rather to educate audiences about Islam and Muslims so that they are not viewed in a minimalist, monolithic, or sensational manner. CAIR is in the business of fighting stereotypes and building bridges between communities via mutual understanding.

CAIR’s headquarters and its many chapters also produce annual documentaries about their work as well as and youtube shorts that are available for download online.

HOUS BIN FARD’EEN (Bahrain):Is you optimistic or is you pessimistic regarding the fate of our beloved religion in the gangster infested hinterlands of Chicago

REHAB: Thank for your question Hous.

I object to your characterization of my beloved hometown, Chicago, as gangster infested. I think you are viewing it the myopic lense of sensationalism, perhaps as a result of how the media reports on Chicago in your locale. By the way, Al Capone died a few decades ago.

This is of course a mirror-image of the problem that many Americans fall into when assessing Muslim-majority countries, like say, Bahrain.

They may also resort to common movie representations, urgban legends, and general stereotype in conjuring false images of Bahrain as a bandit-infested desert wasteland. Of course they would be remiss to view it as such given that Bahrain is a beautiful country with beautiful people.

But that is the very idea of “Beyond Stereotypes,” our media educational guide.

Chicago is also a beautiful city with beautiful people. It has its share of crime and other problems, but overall it is a stellar world-class town that is a joy to call home.

To answer your question, I am optimistic about the fate of Islam in Chicago no less than I am of its fate anywhere else a mind thinks or a heart beats. At the end of the day, Islam is not a tribal ideology that is limited to a geographic location, but a universal set of truths that are at home wherever a human being chooses to embrace them and practice them.

As a Muslim in America, I do not feel foreign in Chicago nor out of my element. Islam helps me be a great citizen of this city and this country.

Keep in mind that Islam is culturally neutral in that it is compatible to any culture on the planet. It is a global faith, not a regional faith. It is at home in the fjords of Norway as it is in the dunes of Arabia. It is a connection between a human being and God, not a set of cultural traditions. If you think of it this way, you can see why it is ill-advised to inherently marry Islam to the Middle-East while divorcing it from the West, Asia, the Caribbean islands, or anywhere else in the world.

Lastly, I think the world would be a better place if we in the West avoiced Orientalism as the way in which we view the East, and if those in the East avoided ‘Occidentalism’ as the way in which they view the Western world. Let’s move “beyond stereotypes.”

SHAKEEL (United States): What are the motives of this campgain and what prompted it to come out these days? What does it include? Are you inviting big media professionals or is it going to be done at a smaller scale?

REHAB: Thanks for your question Shakeel.

I answered your first question in my first response. But to quickly reiterate, the motive is to facilitate the understanding of Islam and its practitioners. What prompted it is a desire to reverse what seems to be a recurring problem where Islamic terms are misdefined in the media, and Muslims and Islam are misrepresented.

The initiative is available to old and new, big and small.

TALLULAH BANKHEAD: Hello dear. What assistance does CAIR provide to elderly women such as myself during these severe economic troubles?

REHAB: Hello dear sister Tallulah,

CAIR does not provide economic charitable services as it is a civil rights and advocacy group, rather than a charitable services group.

Of course, the work we do is considered by many to be among the highest forms of charity, but I understand that this is not the charity you imply in your question.

We would help you by fighting for your rights and defending you from discrimination, for free. But we do not, as an organization, dispense monetary aid to those facing economic hardship as that would be out of the scope of our services.

I would advise you to visit your local mosque or Islamic charity for assistance with your sever economic troubles.

May God relieve you of your ailment.

EGFOO YONG (Hong Kong):How do you celebrate Chinese new year is year of rat.

REHAB: I do not particularly celebrate the Chinese new year, though I appreciate the beautiful culture and festivities that I see when I visit Chinatown here in Chicago.

For the record, I was born in the year of the Dragon. Thank you Chinese calendar. Beat that!

MABROUK EL SHARKAWY (Colombia): Please discuss whether the powerful and smart Jews oppose this and explain.

REHAB: Thank you for your question Mabrouk.

There are Jews that are smart and powerful and those that are not so smart and not so powerful and then there is everything in between.

I would not encourage the stereotyping of Jews as a deviously smart and maliciously powerful group as your question seems to imply.

Again, that would be stereotyping. Our goal is to move beyond stereotypes, but that would mean starting with ourselves in how we view others.

Remember, many anti-Muslim bigots attribute the faults of a Muslim to being Muslim, rather than to a set of complex nuanced factors that likely inform their individual identity and their individual choices.

Judaism is a faith and should receive the same respect we demand for Islam.

If a Jewish person is anti-Muslim, it is not attributable to their faith, but to their individual choice to be that way. As such, I would not generalize.

I have seen a pattern of anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamophobia in a limited group of radical Zionists, but I would not stretch that to haul in all “Jews.” That would simply be unfair and inaccurate.

Hillary Toadstool (New Zealand, Aotearoa):As a Muslimah who prides myself on being demure yet lovely, what stereotypes is CAIR fostering to combat the belief that Muslims are terrorists and crazy?

REHAB: Salam Hillary,

One way to do that is to shed some light on people like yourself, in other words, to pitch human stories from ordinary, everyday Muslims.

The biggest problem I see with the US media is not fabrication, but selectivity.

In other words, if they are showing images of violence committed by Muslims, chances are they did not stage those images in their studios, but that they do exist. So it is not an issue of fabrication.

The problem arises when those images are the only ones they ever show about Muslims. So it’s an issue of questionable selectivity.

I understand that for the media that is essentially a money-making business, “what bleeds reads.”

BUT, this constant selectivity where Islam and Muslims are exclusively shown through the myopic lense of conflict and violence can amount to a sophisticated form of bias; any responsible media that does not wish to bias its audiences is advised to take note of that and consider ways to deal with this real problem.

Imagine if the only thing people in Egypt ever heard about from the US or New Zealand was violent racism. Cases of violent racism indeed exist in those countries, but is this the totality of our experience and the story of either country and its people?

And so, one way we seek to reverse stereotypes is to challenge the media to widen their horizons and to bring a fuller picture, and a more whole story to audiences who lack fundamental knowledge about Islam and the Muslim people and who depend on their TV and radio sets exclusively for that information.

FADI ASSAF (Canada):What does CAIR intend to do to educate the public in America about the Gaza blockade and what the media professionals, reporters and writers are supposed to say about these flagrant atrocities that many people in America are unfortunately unaware of?

REHAB: Thanks for your question Fadi.

CAIR has issued both a press release to the media and an action alert to the community with the purpose of educating both about the atrocities currently being committed in Gaza and the humanitarian crisis that innocent people there now face as a result.

You can access both the release and the action alert on our website.

Our basic position is that as taxpaying citizens of this country, we object to our tax dollars going into illegal, uncivilized, and inhumane policies of collective punishment against civilian populations as we are seeing Israel currently do. Israel of course is the largest foreign recipient of our tax dollars. Yet Israel seems to think it is ok to engage in such behavior, not once, but systematically. This is not the first time it has resorted to inhumane collective punishment to achieve a political end.

As an American Muslim organization and as community members we are calling on our elected representatives to demand an immediate end to the blockade and the full restoration of essential services in Gaza, and to hold Israel accountable so that they no longer get away with illegal and inhumane policies against the besieged Palestinian people.

DENIS:Which “Stereotypes” you are referring to? You mean how the Arabs and Muslims blame the Jews for everything and how burn the American flag in every demonstrations?

REHAB: Thanks for your question Denis.

No, I mean how Arabs and Muslims are exclusively seen as blaming the Jews for everything and burning American flags in every demonstration.

KHALID MORSI (Egypt):What does CAIR do besides civil rights advocacy? I heard that it has so many offices in the States? Are these offices occupied only with civil liberties? Is this a reflection of the “land of freedom”? REHAB: Thanks for your question Khalid, from my motherland.

CAIR works to defend and advocate for civil rights, facilitate the understanding of Islam and Muslims, and build coalitions that seek to create mutual understanding between communities.

America is “the land of the free” with some hiccups. It is up to us, its citizens, to help it overcome its hiccups.

As citizens who happen to be Muslim, we do not see ourselves as the “other” as some wish for us to be seen, but as mainstream Americans whose faith is an asset, not a liability, to our good standing as citizens and community members.

Personally, I think Muslims should compete with Tylenol. A Muslim is a pain reliever.

We should be pain relievers within any society in which we exist. Wherever we go and wherever we live, we should aspire to relieve pain, whether that pain is hate, poverty, war, disease, or anything else that ails humanity.

As a Muslim, if I see a problem with America, I do not wish to punish America, I wish to help it relieve its pain and become the best society it can be.

TURKI ON’RYE (Saudi Arabia):Please return to the topic at hand and discuss stereo types. I want to compare Sony stereos with Kenwood. Which do you recommend?

REHAB: Thanks for your (wierd but funny) question Turki. I recommend Sony.

EDITOR:Finally, we would like to thank Mr. Ahmed Rehab for taking the time to answer the questions of Islamonline viewers today, and we also thank all those who participated in this dialogue. We encourage our readers to join us in upcoming sessions.

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