It was an image of Islam that might have startled many Americans: a young Muslim woman wearing a traditional head scarf standing in the center of a chandeliered banquet hall singing the U.S. national anthem.Except there haven’t been any lynchings.
"It saddens me," Denise Hazime, a 25-year-old, Muslim American law student remarked after watching the woman sing to kick off an Arab student fundraiser. "The way things are now, I bet the average American would never think of the image of a covered girl singing our national anthem."
The way things are now is this: American Muslim leaders say they are facing an increasingly tough public relations battle as they fight to portray their faith as non-violent.
Some Muslims say conveying a peaceful image of Islam is tougher now than it was after the Sept. 11 attacks, and they blame a daily barrage of negative media images.
They are referring to stories such as a Christian convert being threatened with execution in Afghanistan, coverage of thousands of Muslims expressing outrage at Danish cartoons and shouting anti-Western threats, and daily bloody images from Iraq.
"We say we're peaceful people, but it doesn't matter what we say," said Irfan Rydhan, 31, a spokesperson and organizer for the South Bay Islamic Association in San Jose, Calif.
"They see these violent images on TV, and those people look like us."
American views of their Muslim neighbors had been improving. A Pew Research Center poll released in July 2005, after the London terrorist bombings, showed that 55% of Americans had a favorable opinion of Muslim Americans. But a Washington Post/ABC News poll released in March showed that a majority of Americans have a negative view of Islam.
'It's really hard right now'
It seems as if extremist voices "have taken over," said Rana Abbas, a 26-year-old Muslim American who is deputy director of Michigan's American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a nationwide civil rights group based in Washington, D.C. "It makes your struggle so much harder. It makes it seem as if all your efforts are in vain. It's really hard right now for moderate Muslims to get their message out."
A large part of the public relations problem is that most Americans do not have a basic understanding of the turmoil that exists in parts of the Muslim world, said James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, a political advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
Zogby said that many heavily Islamic regions have been destabilized by war.
"The problem is not the nature of the religion; it is the dislocation and disruption of normal society brought on by the trauma of war," he said. "It's similar to what happened in our own country during the post-Civil War period where you had lynchings and the emergence of extremist currents that lasted for decades."
I wish the reporter would have asked Zogby about Wafa Sultan. In my mind, the acid test of “moderate Islam” is the deference a Muslim is willing to giver her. If a Muslim recognizes the right of an Islamic apostate to their beliefs, whatever contradictions they may hold are no longer my concern, for that Muslim will have finally entered civilization. Until them, Muslims must take ownership of the negative perceptions they face.