understanding our muslim neighbors Op-Ed

| 01 Aug 2016 | 01:41

We are all anxious and angry about the terrorist attacks in Orlando and at Bastille Day fireworks in Nice, France -- but what can Americans do?

Divisive approaches to the issue dominate the news these days, and several legislative measures have received backing. So far, 14 states have proposed or passed anti-Sharia laws, despite the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion.

We offer what we believe is a more thoughtful way to deal with the fears and divisions. The New York Community Trust is trying, on a small scale, to support solutions to anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate crimes. We started this spring, joining the Ford Foundation and the New York Foundation, to look for positive messages. We heard from Muslim-Americans eager to be recognized for who they truly are—doctors, teachers, shopkeepers—in short, New Yorkers who want to make New York great.

According to reports from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, more than 80 percent of media coverage of Muslim-Americans is negative. Public perception is easily skewed: Surveys show that most Americans do not know a Muslim.

Weeks before the Orlando massacre, The Trust committed more than half a million dollars in grants to eight organizations to highlight Muslims’ contributions to New York City while countering bias and negative stereotypes.

Already, these groups are influencing the conversation. At New York University’s Islamic Center, for example, leaders are presenting a realistic view of Muslim life by developing videos and podcasts with basic facts, inspirational stories and humorous anecdotes about Muslim-Americans.

A grant to the Asian American Writers’ Workshop underwrites emerging Muslim, Arab, and South Asian writers workshops, fellowships, and mentors to help publish authentic narratives. Seftel Productions, also based in New York, is receiving a grant to create a video series, “The Secret Lives of Muslims,” illuminating their accomplishments. We are funding another nonprofit group, Turning Point for Women and Families, to train female leaders from local Muslim communities, breaking a stereotype that women aren’t allowed to be leaders in Muslim groups.

Throughout history, one group after another—the Irish, the Jews, the Latinos—has been scapegoated in the U.S. Once again, we all need to speak up for our wrongly vilified neighbors.

The New York Community Trust is urging government agencies, the media, and our fellow foundations to help American Muslims nurture and promote their leaders and thinkers, spotlight the contributions of Muslim professionals, and tout the positive, patriotic impact of Islam in American communities. We hope our work will inspire similar work across the country.

Ours is a small start, but at least it’s that—a start.

Shawn Morehead, a former lawyer and teacher, is a program director at the New York Community Trust, a community foundation for the city, Westchester and Long Island.