Fostering friendships among all Americans

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American Muslim

Bills of Rights Defense Committee
Building Bridges with Arab and Muslim Community Members

[BORDC thanks Hasan Mansori of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Samina Faheem of American Muslim Voice for their help, suggestions, and review.]

Since September 11, 2001, people of Arab and Muslim descent living in the United States have suffered greatly from roundups and questioning, detentions, deportations, the Special Registration program called NSEERS (National Security Entry-Exit Registration System), and SEVIS (Student Exchange Visitor Information System) as well as a general backlash.

Community groups who are concerned about threats to the liberties and well-being of targeted groups such as Arab and Muslim citizens and noncitizens within their community can help end the targeting by building bridges to increase social interaction and replace mutual mistrust with mutual understanding and friendship.

The first important step is to meet. In establishing contact, keep in mind that many Arab and Muslim people are justifiably fearful, so ideally it is best to establish contact via existing relationships, for example, if someone in your group already has Arab or Muslim friends, neighbors, workmates, or classmates. In the absence of such a relationship, try this:

If there is a mosque nearby, contact the mosque by telephone. Friday is the sacred day for Muslims, so 11 a.m., before Friday Prayer, is usually a good time to reach someone at the mosque. Explain that people in the community have formed a group and what its purpose is, and convey a message of understanding, feelings of concern for those who worship in the mosque who may be suffereing, and an interest in meeting. Ask for suggestions of the best way to get together. For example, does the mosque have a community center, and if so, are there any public events planned that you or other members might attend? Would anyone from the mosque like to attend your group's meetings?

Trust is a big issue among people who have reason to fear visits from the FBI or INS, so you may sense reticence or skepticism about your identity. To help instill trust, consider writing a letter to the person at the mosque and listing the names of your members with their signatures. Be persistent, friendly, and patient.

Once you have overcome the first hurdles of establishing contact and gaining trust, here are some suggestions:

  • Visit Muslim and Arab neighbors and co-workers at their homes. Make them feel welcome in your neighborhood.
  • When your children have questions about Muslims or Islam, ask your Muslim neighbors and friends for the right answer.
  • Cosponsor an interfaith dialogue.
  • Establish a more formal bond between a mosque and your own place of worship, and plan social events, inter-community picnics, and sports events to help people in the community get to know each other better.
  • Suggest that the public schools institute an international contact or international aid project. For example, children can write letters to children in Iraq and Afghanistan or collect and send supplies and materials to a school that is in need.
  • Invite Muslims to sit on local boards and committees.
  • Remember Muslim holidays. A good resource is Religious Tolerance.org.
  • Provide support for a family who has a member facing deportation. Organize a group to attend the deportation hearing and possibly give testimony.
  • Help a family who has a member that has been deported to his home country or another country.
  • Muslims and Arabs are very hospitable. Once you get to know them, you will enjoy their friendship. A few simple tips about Muslim culture and dress can help prevent misunderstandings:
  • When you go to the mosque, dress modestly in clothing that covers your body. (This directive is for both men and women.)
  • Most Muslim women do not shake hands or hug men.
  • These are a few suggestions that can help your community counteract the backlash, unfair targeting, and misunderstandings of your Arab and Muslim neighbors. Repeating these actions in communities nationwide will help prevent future targeting of innocent people by the federal government on the basis of racial and ethnic profiling.

April 2004