NOTE—At ReadTheSpirit, we know that good media builds good communities. We also know from the extensive body of United America research by leading sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker that all of us as Americans share many core values. That may sound startling—but it’s true. In June 2015, as 1.6 billion Muslims around the world prepare for the holy fasting month of Ramadan, this is a perfect time to reach out in a welcoming way to Muslim friends, neighbors and co-workers. Greet them. Wish them well. But how do you do that without embarrassing yourself? What words should you use? We’ve got the answers. We publish many resources to help you successfully make friends, including the Michigan State University School of Journalism guide, 100 Questions and Answers About Muslim Americans, produced by students with help from the scholar who writes this week’s cover story …
Making Muslim friends at Ramadan
By JOE GRIMM
The summer of 2014 was a chilly one for Muslims in America.
They shivered as the lowest religious group on a “warmth index” created by the Pew Research Center. Pew’s American Trends Panel surveyed 3,217 randomly selected adults in the United States about their attitudes toward various religions groups. (Note to readers in 2017: The Pew report referenced here remains the most recent update of this periodic “warmth index.”)
Pew ranked the responses on a 0-100 feelings thermometer. The warmest feelings were for Jews, 63; Catholics, 62; and Evangelical Christians, 61. The lowest feelings were for atheists, 41; and Muslims, 40. Buddhists, Hindus and Mormons were in between. Actually, 41 percent of the respondents placed Mormons below 33—indicating that large numbers of Americans have icy feelings toward several religious minorities.
Pew found that feelings toward religious groups varied by one’s own religion, race and politics—as well as by whether someone knows a member of that group.
At Michigan State University, where we have been publishing 100-question-and-answer cultural competence guides, we thought Islam needed attention. Part of our job is to help people get to know each other. People who attended the North American Interfaith Network conference in Detroit during August 2014 encouraged the project. So, in November, the class published 100 Questions and Answers About Muslim Americans.
As front-page news stories tell us each week, for more than a year, extremists who hijacked Islam for their agenda of political violence in Iraq and Syria have been deliberately trying to redefine this worldwide faith as a fearsome force. This campaign, including horrific scenes of violence committed by ISIL, and by similar groups like Boko Haram in Africa, wound up making life worse for Muslims in America.
Attacks by these groups and their propaganda campaigns helped to fuel an existing Islamophobia.
For the guide’s preface, Mohammad Hassan Khalil of Michigan State University’s Center for Islamic Studies writes:
“For centuries, Muslim Americans, like other American minorities, have had to confront and contend with numerous detractors and misconceptions. One might assume that the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, only made things worse for Muslim Americans.”
We seem to be in a similar period now.
To make the guide, students interviewed dozens of Muslims, asking what questions they hear and what they wish others understood about them. The meaning and practice of Ramadan came up frequently. Read the Spirit’s Stephanie Fenton explains the month-long observance in the guide’s section on religious holidays, a first for the series.
The guide also answers:
* Who is Muhammad?
* What does the Quran say about Jesus?
* Why do Muslims pray facing Mecca?
* What is Shariah?
* Are halal and kosher foods the same?
* What does jihad mean?
After the interviews, one student noted that sources said they would appreciate it if others learned to pronounce words such as “Muslim” correctly. We gave the guide an audio recording, another first. In it, Muslims of various backgrounds and ages pronounce “Islam,” “Muslim,” “Allah” and “Ramadan Mubarak,” which means “blessed Ramadan.”
Click on the graphic, below, to hear the audio. (Better yet, order your own copy of the book in print or in an e-edition and you’ll be able to share this audio clip with friends anywhere. In the print edition, it plays from a QR code, so you’ll just click your smartphone to hear it.)
Now, a panel of about 20 expert allies are reviewing a new guide about religion. This one is about American Jews, and we plan to publish it this summer.
While Muslims are observing their holy month of Ramadan, the rest of us can join them symbolically by reading 100 Questions and Answers About Muslim Americans.”
Joe Grimm is visiting editor in residence in the School of Journalism at Michigan State University. He is editor of this series of guides to cultural competence.