Muslim stereotypes challenged in US

The US Department of Justice is trying to combat racial stereotypes surrounding the Muslim community since the 11 September terrorist attacks.

A training programme aimed at police officers and other public officials is seeking to increase understanding of Muslim culture, in the hope that this will defuse tensions.

Lobna Ismael is the daughter of Egyptian immigrants to the US. She is a Muslim and she wears the traditional headscarf, the hijab.

Islam / Islamism

Islamism is a totalitarian ideology adhered to by Muslim extremists (e.g. the Taliban, Hamas and Osama bin Laden). It is considered to be a distortion of Islam. Many Islamists engage in terrorism in pursuit of their goals.

Adherents of Islam are called “Muslims.” The term “Arab” describes an ethnic or cultural identity. Not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs. The terms are not interchangeable.

“There’s been a range of backlash toward Arab and Muslim Americans,” she says.

“It has included verbal assaults, it has included physical assaults. We had a woman who just recently was walking down the street and wearing hijab, and was stabbed and called a terrorist. We’ve had our mosque defamed with graffiti and people shooting bullets into the windows of our mosque.”

Now Ms Ismael is challenging those stereotypes, by carrying out a series of training workshops for the Department of Justice.

Learning curve

I met her at a police station in Montgomery County, Maryland, where she has been training officers from the local force.

Captain Edward Coursey was one of her trainees.

Driving me around his Takoma Park beat, he acknowledged that there had been a tendency to view Muslims as potential terrorist suspects.

“Particularly after the 9/11 attacks, we in the law enforcement community have obviously geared up to be on the lookout for terrorism. And I guess the immediate reaction might have been to look at Muslims in a sceptical way,” he said.

“This training allows us to realise that the vast majority of people in the Arab American community have nothing to do with terrorism. They are peace-loving people like ourselves, and they may need our protection.”

Scepticism

But a lot of Muslims are unconvinced by the Department of Justice scheme.

They are less concerned about how the police treat them than they are about attitudes high up in the Bush administration.

After Friday prayers at the Islamic Center of Maryland, I sat on the floor of the mosque and chatted with a group of young Muslim men.

They think the Bush administration is sending out mixed messages to the Muslim community – with police sensitivity training on the one hand, and racial profiling on the other.

“You have sensitivity training for police, because they have to deal with criminals,” said Hanif Khalak.

“Are all Muslims criminals? Why not sensitivity training for government? Do they think we’re all going to jail so we may as well make it a nice experience?”

“And for what purpose, if our brothers and sisters can’t get due process?” added his friend, Wael Elkoshairi.

“We don’t need sensitivity training, we need our rights. And I think that’s what we are looking for as a community, more than anything else.”

But senior people at the Department of Justice defend the programme.

“A lot of people don’t know a whole lot about what’s going on,” said Sharee Freeman, the director of the Community Relations Service with the Department of Justice.

“But I know the work that’s being done by the Bush administration, so I don’t think it’s lip service at all.”

Muslim Americans are wary of the President and his overtly Christian administration, and they feel they have been unfairly singled out for monitoring since 11 September.

But community leaders appear to recognise that the government is trying to build bridges, and that it is probably in everyone’s best interest to meet them half way.

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