Incidents of violence against American Muslims have tripled since the recent terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. This is a troubling trend, because it’s an indication that one form of dangerous collectivism has the potential to breed others.
While it’s reasonable for people to be uneasy and identify radical Islam as a danger that should be eliminated, this doesn’t excuse threatening behavior towards individual Muslims who have done nothing wrong.
Recognizing that a fear of the unknown plays into stereotypes, a Muslim couple from the Boston area decided they’d brave the single-digit weather and help break down social barriers in a friendly way:
The same week that Donald Trump drew 8,000 people to an arena in nearby Lowell, Massachusetts, Mona Haydar and her husband stood outside a library in Cambridge with coffee, donuts, and a sign that says “Ask a Muslim” in tow.
“I was called Donald Trump’s worst nightmare,” said a smiling Haydar. “I just feel like that’s so laughable because I’m not anybody’s worst nightmare. I’m five-foot-nothing, and I just really love everybody.”
Haydar, who was offering free refreshments to passersby to engage them in conversation, went on to explain that while she’s glad to help break down barriers and eliminate stereotypes, it can be a difficult task. “The Muslim community is really feeling the Islamophobia pretty deeply,” she said.
“We’re American citizens, and we’re as terrorized and terrified as everybody else around things like San Bernadino and the Paris attacks,” said Haydar. “The fact that we have to speak out against those things, it’s hard for us, because we’re hurting with everybody else.”
The video, published by Al-Jazeera’s AJ+, has drawn over 30,000 “likes” on Facebook in 24 hours. The vast majority of commenters have praised Haydar and her husband for their efforts, but many believe that despite her good intentions, she shouldn’t feel obligated to speak out.
“I don’t think it is the job of Muslims to police everyone else and their ignorance. You deserve safe spaces and the right to exist in the world without having to explain yourselves or apologize for it,” wrote commenter Renée Stephanie Taylor.
“It’s lovely that they thought to do this but it’s also one of the saddest things in the world,” she added, noting that white Christians don’t have to prove to people that they aren’t dangerous. While Taylor is correct that it’s unfortunate many innocent Muslims feel under siege, her comment about “safe spaces” comes across as naive.
The Comedy Central series South Park aptly satirized the safe space concept with a theatrical depiction of a villain who had come to tear down their safe spaces. “I am cold, I am hard, and my name … is Reality,” sneered a cape- and top hat-clad man.
Perhaps Haydar and her husband have recognized just that: Reality is both cold and hard, but ignoring it ultimately won’t work either. Hence their efforts to break down the social barriers that allow fear to breed.
As Rare’s Jack Hunter wrote this week, noting the unfortunate fact that Americans view Muslims as the group least deserving of religious liberty, “When we begin to see others from different backgrounds as being more like us that prejudice and callousness fades. Understanding grows.”
Haydar is playing a small but consequential part in using human interaction to craft understanding. For the betterment of all Americans, let’s hope she and others who are working to break down barriers are successful.