A Year of Improving Relations Between Muslims and Non-Muslims

By Robert Amir Berry

Working in the global media, I see a lot come across my desk. Islam and Muslims still make international headlines and the world continues to be fixated on us. The media is oft a scapegoat for deteriorating relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, accused of promoting stereotypes and putting their spin on stories that place the ummah in the spotlight.

But reflecting upon the past year, I have been largely encouraged by the many developments in relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. I dare to shake the yoke of our pessimism.

In my view, twelve years post-9/11, media in general has become more nuanced and many more voices have been folded into global coverage. Not only has Aljazeera joined the ranks of CNN and BBC, but popular online publications like the Huffington Post feature entire sections on Interfaith and Islam. Much coverage of relations has changed from the tired ‘us’ versus ‘them’ rhetoric of 2003 to new gleanings and greater responsibility of media in 2013.

When the tragic Boston bombings occurred on April 15, 2013, neither prominent media nor Boston authorities leaped to any conclusion that perpetrators were Muslim, unlike the 1993 Oklahoma City Bombing. This was while many of us tweeted “Please don’t let it be Muslims,” a sentiment we all felt.

Authorities and the media explicitly stated they were not jumping to conclusions and that none of us should either. And when two Chechen men were identified as the suspects, Boston reached out to its Muslim population. Interfaith vigils were held, receiving international coverage; Muslims were given a voice to denounce the acts in the New York Times and the Washington Post; messages of empathy between Boston and Syrians caught up in the terrible war plaguing their country were exchanged via social media.

Though media is becoming more responsible and nuanced in its coverage — with of course a few instances where it hasn’t yet — there are still many exciting areas of cooperation and understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims that should be amplified more in the media space for the ummah and the wider world.

A Common Word and the Muslim-Catholic Forum are high-level pioneers in interfaith relations that should be recognised, commended and continued. I have had the pleasure to correspond with members like Sheikh Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti Emeritus of Bosnia-Herzegovina. A survivor of war between two ethno-religious communities and of genocide, he and other members always fills me with great inspiration and hope for our planet. World Interfaith Harmony Week, proposed by H.M. King Abdullah of Jordan II and adopted by the United Nations last year, is another great achievement that saw its first anniversary this February. Pope Francis, instated by the Catholic Church this year, shows he is a true friend of Muslims.

During Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, both Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took to Twitter to wish Jews worldwide a ‘Happy Near Year.’ They also publically recognised the Holocaust, taking a fearless leap toward dialogue. Audacious actions like these need to be replicated by more members of the Muslim community — they are simple, courageous and have the potential to change our world for the better.

It isn’t just world leaders who can make a difference to improve relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. The onus is on each one of us to act in creative and courageous ways if we are to achieve better relations and finally dispel widespread fear and misunderstanding about Islam.

Therefore, I shift my focus to some of the unsung heroes you may not know, but have nonetheless left lasting, impactful impressions on their communities, changed relations between Muslims and non-Muslims for the better, and show we can all do something profound.

In Bradford, in the United Kingdom, several Muslim organisations came together to save the historic 1880 Reform Synagogue from shutting its doors forever due to lack of finances earlier in March.

And when the Woolwich attack occurred in London, sparking arson and vandalism of mosques throughout the United Kingdom, a Jewish patrol group called Shomrim in Stamford Hill stepped up to help protect mosques and Muslims from backlash. In response to the rise of Islamophobia in Woolwich’s aftermath, rather than simply protest unfair treatment and violence against Muslims based on the evil act of two men, a mosque in York invited anti-Muslim demonstrators to their mosque for tea and biscuits — quite the different approach to Islamophobia, but perhaps a more effective response to stopping hatred and fear.

Eleven imams, sheikhs and other Muslim religious leaders from nine different countries too bravely journeyed to Auschwitz to pray for the victims of one of humanity’s darkest chapters.

Some brave Norwegians lit up the country by breaking down barriers and stereotypes by simply putting together a campaign that invited non-Muslim Norwegian families to the homes of their Muslim neighbours for tea and conversation. Even Norway’s royal family eventually participated.

When hate crimes sadly increased against Muslims across Europe, many young Swedish women took to social media to show solidarity with Muslim women who were assaulted for wearing hijab by donning hijab themselves.

After the violence in Egypt spiraled out of control following President Mohammed Morsi’s ouster, the Copts were made scapegoats and their houses of worship were attacked by mobs. But some Muslims, living in the spirit of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his Achtiname of Saint Catherine’s Monastery, stepped up to form human chains around churches, protecting them from vigilante attacks.

And lastly, young Buddhist punk rockers in Myanmar are bravely speaking out against violence against the Muslim minority in that country while so many others remain silent.

These are the unsung heroes who are changing relations between Muslims and non-Muslims for the better. And the best news I can report is that we can all be among these heroes.

Some will argue that Islamophobia is on the rise this year. Maybe it’s true. But if we can shine as 1.7 billion points of light by being as courageous as these individuals were this year, relations can only get better and there can be no basis for non-Muslims to fear Islam.

But we have to be heroes.

For that, we need to confront fear and discrimination not with protest and outrage, or diatribes about what Islam really stands for. It’s not working, mostly because it falls on the deaf ears of those we want most to listen because it doesn’t address their — sometimes legitimate — fears and concerns.

Instead, we need to be audacious. We need to open up our mosques and our homes for tea and biscuits; be warm and of service to members of other religions; stand up and protect Jews, Christians and others facing discrimination wherever they are. We need to be the ones to take that first brave step toward improving relations.

As a media professional, daily stories of tragedy suggest I should be an embittered person. But, equipped with these and many other examples of hope and heroism, I choose to remain optimistic. We still have work to do, but I find that relations between Muslims and non-Muslims are improving. Let’s all keep it going.

– Robert Amir Berry
Managing Editor, Common Ground News Service (CGNews)
Program Officer, Partners in Humanity – Muslim-Western Understandng, Search for Common Ground