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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Jaclyn Michael, assistant professor of religion and philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, introduces the Islamophobia panel at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center on Sept 17.

Ending Islamophobia in the United States requires recognizing that the hatred of Muslims is rooted in cultural racism and is part of a national system that marginalizes people of the faith, said Todd Green, associate professor of religion at Luther College.

Green, who is also the author of "Presumed Guilty: Why We Shouldn't Ask Muslims to Condemn Terrorism" and "The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West," was part of an interfaith discussion on Islamophobia Tuesday afternoon at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center alongside local faith leaders who spoke about their own experiences with Islamophobia and bigotry.

"From Sept. 12 onward, and 2001 onward, we became a nation where Islamophobia became ground into our foreign policy and, ultimately, our domestic policy," Green said.

The panel — organized by University of Tennessee at Chattanooga assistant professor of philosophy and religion Jaclyn Michael — included Hammad El-Ameen, founder of the Understanding Islam Da'awah Foundation, Rabbi Susan Tendler of B'nai Zion Congregation, and Prem Singh Kahlon of the South Eastern Sikh Religious Society.

some text Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Todd Green, associate professor of religion at Luther College, speaks at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center on Sept 17.

Drawing parallels to the ongoing problem of anti-Semitism around the world, Tendler said hatred is driving misinformation. For example, on the anniversary of 9/11, the rock at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville was painted with words claiming Jews were responsible for the terrorist attack.

"Regardless of what truth is, regardless of how we live our lives, we live in a society now that relies on hate," she said.

Just educating the public about the realities of Islam — the five pillars of the faith or what "jihad" really means, for example — is ending hatred in the country. With technological advancements, resources about how the faith is peaceful have never been more available. Yet, anti-Muslim hate crimes have been increasing since the middle of 2015 and political rhetoric increasingly demonizing Muslims. The people fighting against hatred are failing, Green said.

By almost every metric, Islamophobia is getting worse in America, and has been since 2001, he said.

Across the United States in 2017, there were 273 anti-Islamic hate crime incidents, compared to 156 incidents in 2004, according to data from the Department of Justice. There were two anti-Islamic incidents in Tennessee in 2018, a drop from nine in 2017 and four in 2016, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

In 2017, a former Tennessee Valley Authority engineer was convicted of recruiting people to attack Muslims.

Members of the Islamic faith receive angry looks when they go out in public because their clothing signals their faith. People whisper when they walk by, El-Ameen said.

Muslims are racialized in America, seen as one group of people with one worldview, rather than individuals, Green said. Muslims are typically not white and have beliefs that are not held by the majority of Americans. This leads to cultural racism, Green said. When one act of violence is done in the name of the faith, all Muslims are grouped together as though they were all complicit.

As a parallel, when a white man murdered nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, white men were not called upon to denounce the act. White men were not all seen as complicit and possibly the next attacker, Green said.

This anti-Islam racism is why Muslims are seen as deserving of suspicion and subsequently marginalized, such as being banned from entering the United States, as President Donald Trump has done for Muslims from several Muslim-majority countries, Green said.

The marginalization of Muslims by politicians, members of the media and other leaders causes the ignorance that drives Islamophobia. The marginalization is systemic, Green said.

"It is systemic Islamophobia that we have had such little success against in the past two decades," Green said. "This is where we are really losing the battle in the United States. It is systemic Islamophobia that breeds ignorance, which in turn then makes our efforts to educate the public about Islam all the more difficult."

One of the major drivers of the hatred of Muslims are the depictions of them in popular culture and in the news media, El-Ameen said. A report from the Council on American-Islamic Relations found that between 2014 and 2016, anti-Islamic groups had revenues totalling $1.5 billion.

"Their mindset has been shaped by the media to demonize people like me," El-Ameen said. "... Millions and millions of dollars are made off of hating Muslims."

Asking Muslims to denounce acts of terrorism only furthers the idea that all Muslims are the same, assumes that Muslims otherwise support terrorism and ignores the social and political conditions that lead to terrorism, Green said.

some text Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Hammad El-Ameen, founder of the Understanding Islam Da'awah Foundation, speaks at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center on Sept 17.

Muslims should not be obligated to both fight for their rights as a religious minority and fight against Islamophobia. That obligation is on the majority, he said.

"It's white Americans and white Christian Americans and the non-Muslim majority, broadly speaking, that has the real moral responsibility to fight Islamophobia," Green said. "When Muslims fight Islamophobia, [they're] just trying to survive."

The majority population must fight for the rights of the minority and challenge those who oppose equality, Kahlon said. Otherwise, the hatred created by fringe elements will direct the nation.

Having personal relationships with people of different faiths is one of the most effective ways to fight hatred, Green said. The movement against Islamophobia should also look to the Civil Rights Movement and how the movement made supporting racism politically, economically and socially untenable. The same should be done for supporting Islamophobia, Green said.

From the reporter

I became a journalist to help people see people as people. But highlighting the human side of every policy decision, and how it is affecting your community, takes time as well as support from readers. If you believe in telling the stories of people in your community, please subscribe to the Times Free Press today. Contact me at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Find me on Twitter at @News4Mass.

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