Panel discussion provides facts and skills for overcoming Islamophobia, xenophobia

Last week’s executive order to temporarily ban travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries inspired a significant spike in RSVPs for the previously scheduled panel discussion “Xenophobia and Islamophobia in the Modern Era.”

“The changing events provided a teachable moment we could not have anticipated,” said sociology professor Shannon Davis, acting director of George Mason University’s Institute for Immigration Research, one of the hosting organizations.

A shift to a larger room in Merten Hall on Mason’s Fairfax Campus was barely enough to accommodate the overflow crowd of students, faculty, staff and community members who came to learn how the myths of immigration and Muslims have caused fear and mistrust in many communities—and how to counter those misperceptions in their own lives. Another 209 viewed the discussion on Livestream and Facebook.

The Feb. 1 discussion was moderated by the institute’s executive director, Monica Gomez Isaac, who pointed out that Islamophobia and xenophobia are real and on the rise in America, as indicated by the 67 percent increase in crimes against Muslims in 2014-15.

Besheer Mohamed, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., provided statistics from surveys that show how much—or little—the general population knows about Islam and Muslims. For example, most of those surveyed guessed the Muslim population in the United States was 7 percent, when in reality it is 1 percent.

“Seven of 10 Muslims in America become citizens,” he said. “Forty percent of Muslim women never wear a hijab, which surprises a lot of people.” Half of those surveyed have one Muslim friend and most don’t seek to learn more about the religion, which leads to misconceptions, he added.

The immigrant contribution to American society can’t be overlooked, although it often is, said Amber Jamil, executive director of the American Pakistani Foundation.

“The Pakistani diaspora is a leading example” of an immigrant population that comes to the United States to gain an education, build businesses and become involved in communities beyond their own, she said.

She also called on millennials to do their part.

“Your potential to change the discourse is phenomenal,” she said.

Ahmet Tekelioglu, who works with Mason’s Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, one of the event co-hosts, said Islam “has a rich history and a diverse population with thousands of opinions…A main challenge is to teach the many manifestations” of Islam in order to overcome misconceptions.

Patricia Maulden, director of Mason’s Dialogue and Difference Project and a professor in the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, the third host of the event, provided practical skills for overcoming misconceptions.

“The subtext of fear [of immigrants] has become political currency,” she said. Those who exhibit symptoms of xenophobia most likely have a perceived loss of dignity and have an ignorance of facts that acerbate the impact of fear.

To counter that, she told the audience to “honor the other with your presence” by listening closely, setting aside ego and making an earnest outreach by demonstrating respect.

“To honor someone, to really be in their presence and listen, for just five minutes is tiring, so we have to retrain ourselves.”

One audience member wearing a hijab said the populace needs to “speak out in the face of the noise machine that keeps ginning up the tension.” Most of the written questions from the audience asked for informed and unbiased sources of information and data as they don’t trust what they are hearing. 

Mohamed got the only laugh of the evening when he quickly responded, “” to which Gomez Isaac replied, “"