How to respond to anti-Muslim speech? Here are some suggestions

How should you respond if you hear an anti-Muslim slur or read a hateful post on social media?

The terror attack on mosques in New Zealand has lent new urgency to educating the public about those questions, say Islamic leaders. It’s not OK to be silent, they stress. But it’s also not a great idea to angrily take the bait.

“We recommend people make a statement that is not aggressive and doesn’t address the topic at hand,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “If you’re online, you can share a powerful quote from a global leader, a statement of peace. Or an appropriate emoji.”

In personal interactions, don’t engage the aggressor, he said, but rather support the person being attacked. Once one person has spoken up, others often will follow.

These are among the suggestions offered as the world reels from the latest violent attack on Muslims. Friday’s attack by a white nationalist at two mosques in Christchurch, which killed at least 49 people, is an extreme example of growing anti-Muslim sentiment sweeping the Western world, said Muslim leaders, and people with a moral compass need to make their voices heard.

Exactly how to do that is the issue.

Angry verbal sparring doesn’t change anyone’s mind, so it may be one of the least effective ways to combat hate speech, they said. Likewise, arguing your facts against their alleged facts rarely leads to illumination, because they simply don’t believe them.

“You have a certain segment of society that actually believes Muslims are trying to enact sharia law in the United States,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the national CAIR organization.

CAIR offers a Challenging Islamophobia Pocket Guide with advice on how to document, report and respond to anti-Muslim statements in the media, workplaces, schools and community. It can be downloaded and tucked in a wallet.

Perhaps the best tool for combating Islamophobia is getting non-Muslims to engage with Muslims, ideally face to face, said Muslim leaders. Americans who have Muslim friends and acquaintances are less likely to spout hate speech than others.

Mosques should continue their outreach into neighborhoods, inviting people in, anti-discrimination experts said. And churches need to help demystify Muslims to their congregations, they said. Civic institutions such as schools and universities also must build more opportunities for Muslims to interact with their non-Muslim neighbors.

Curbing stereotypes

John Emery is executive director of the Islamic Resource Group, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit focused on building bridges between Muslims and people of other faiths. A challenge in Minnesota is that many people, especially those outside of the Twin Cities metro area, have never met anyone who is Muslim.

That can lead to generalizations about all Muslims, something that researchers call “collective blame.” University of Pennsylvania researchers have conducted experiments using videos designed to combat racism to see what strategies work best to address sweeping generalizations against Muslims.

They found that an effective strategy was pointing to a parallel in the white Christian community.

They would ask a question such as, “If the KKK members were white Christians, does that mean all white Christians are murderers?”

“It was switching people from thinking reflexively to reflectively,” said Emile Bruneau, director of the University of Pennsylvania Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab.

Next Thursday, Metro State University in St. Paul is hosting the third annual conference on Challenging Islamophobia, sponsored in part by CAIR. It will bring in top national scholars and researchers.

The timing couldn’t be more appropriate, said Jodi Bantley, community engagement coordinator at Metro State.

“The rise of white nationalist rhetoric cannot be divorced from actions taken, such as what happened in New Zealand,” said Bantley. “While that has received a lot of media attention, other incidents occur regularly in America.”

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