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'We have the same heart': Madison Muslims unite against negative perceptions of Islam

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Men offer Sajdah, which means prostration to God in the direction of the Kaaba at Mecca during a congressional prayer on a recent Friday at the East Side Mosque of Madison. Many Muslims in Madison feel they need to educate the media about what Islam is and how it is practiced.

PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

On the morning of June 13, Maysoun Chablout and her husband decided it was best to stay inside.

It was the day after a mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando and Chablout, a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, feared she would be blamed for the horrific violence if she appeared in public.

“It felt like 9/11 for us Muslims where you couldn’t go outside for three weeks,” said Chablout, who was born in Syria and has lived in Madison for three years. She teaches Arabic studies at Madinah Community Center.

Although Muslims residing in the United States have publicly condemned such attacks as contrary to the teachings of Islam, those same U.S. residents, many of them American citizens, still fear hostile environments that can result when shooters are identified as Muslims. Anti-Muslim sentiment is suspected by some to be the motive behind the recent shooting death of an Imam and his assistant in Queens, New York, though that has not been confirmed.

Local Muslims interviewed say they want people to know that Islam is not confined to a society or geographic location. There are 1.6 billion Muslims residing across the globe.

Madison Muslims have migrated from different parts of the world, belong to a wide variety of ethnic groups and are a tightly knit community. They estimate that there are approximately 10,000 Muslims in the Madison area, many of whom attend the area's three mosques, located downtown and on the east and west sides. All of the mosques are former churches. People gather at each of the mosques for Friday afternoon prayers, called Jummah.

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Imam Alhagie Jallow, an Islamic Scholar, who presides over a mosque in Madison challenges to justify terrorist attacks carried out across the globe as an act of Islam. "Islam should not be judged as a religion based on one person's action. If a terrorist has an Islamic name, the entire world blames the rest of the Muslims and it is painful, " Jallow said.

While many in Madison’s Muslim population said they don’t experience the same kind of hostility that their Muslim counterparts face in other parts of the country, they point to the media as a primary source of rhetoric that roots Islamophobia among non-Muslims.

“Media is playing a critical role towards portraying Islam in a negative way and sadly it is the prime source of information for the masses,” said Sohail Siraj, owner of Best Brains Learning Center, an academic tutoring business in Madison.

Still, Muslims interviewed say they have found a supportive community here.

“It is important for the whole nation and the city of Madison to know that churches and other organizations reached out to us after all the anti-Islam rhetoric in the media about Muslims to show support,” said Gibril Jarjue, president of the Islamic Center of East Madison. “There is solidarity between Muslims and other faiths in Madison.”

Jarjue said the churches signed a letter in support of the Madison Muslim community.

“I hope other organizations in other cities learn from this kind of unity because we have families and kids here,” Jarjue said. “They are growing and they are Americans.”

On a recent Friday, the Imam leading prayers at the Islamic Center of East Madison quoted from the Quran, the main religious text of Islam, and preached about living in harmony with neighbors despite the challenges of the current political climate.

It is a common theme in the mosque. During the sermon preceding the prayers, Imam Alhagie Jallow, an Islamic scholar, said terrorist attacks carried out across the globe by those who identify as Muslim are not acts of Islam.

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The Islamic Center of East Madison located at 4002 Lien Rd was purchased from Parkside Presbyterian Church under a land contract agreement in 2014.

“Islam should not be judged as a religion based on one person’s action,” said Jallow, who presides over the Islamic Center of East Madison. “If a terrorist has an Islamic name, the entire world blames the rest of the Muslims and it is painful.”

Islam condemns the killing of human beings, he said. Jallow quoted a verse from the Quran which is translated as: “If a person saves one soul, the reward is for saving the whole world. And if you kill one soul, the consequences and punishment for that is as if you killed the whole world.”

Nizam Nizammuddin, an immigrant from India who has lived in Madison for 45 years, condemned mass shootings such as those in Orlando and San Bernardino, California, calling them barbaric.

“If their interpretation of Islam triggers a derailed thought process, that is their individual problem and misunderstanding of the religion. It does not mean that Islam allows such actions,” Nizammuddin said. “There is no room for such kind of violence.”

Violent acts that the media link with individuals who happen to be Muslim cause shock and grief as well as frustration for local Muslims.

“I was in shock and frustrated at the (Orlando) shooter at the same time for carrying such an attack when Muslims are already portrayed so negatively,” said Akmal Hamid, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student originally from Malaysia.

When she first heard about the mass shooting in Florida, Najeeha Khan, another student at UW-Madison originally from Pakistan, hoped that the perpetrator was not a Muslim.

“Because we have seen it in the past where the media links the attack to Islamic values and we can suffer the consequences and deal with negative comments although we didn’t ask for it,” Khan said.

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The day after a mass shooting at a night club in Orlando, Maysoun Chablout feared she being a Syrian born Muslim woman wearing a Hijab – would be blamed for the horrific violence again, if she appeared in public. “It felt like 9/11 for us Muslims where you couldn’t go outside for three weeks,” the Arabic studies teacher said.

Khan wears a hijab and prepared herself for negative remarks and more stares than usual after the attack. The traditional headscarf makes it impossible for Muslim women to blend in.

“It is unnerving when people just blatantly keep staring at you in public if you’re wearing a hijab,” said another UW-Madison student, Afra Alam, who was born in Waukesha and is of Bangladeshi descent. “People have such crazy hairstyles, but that’s more acceptable in public than me wearing a scarf over my head.”

The media’s tendency to link Islamic values and terrorism, even indirectly, seems to happen for several reasons, some said.

UW-Madison student Hamid believes that by making that connection, journalists think their stories will be more interesting and more people will read them.

“That is the media’s goal, and people who already antagonize Islam — including politicians — hit the jackpot,” Hamid said.

Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the UW-Madison, said that when there is a presidential candidate like Donald Trump who establishes narratives against a particular race or religion, it can be hard for journalists to correct that tone.

With breaking news, Culver said, the media needs to slow down.

“They should not immediately make the top question: ‘Is this terrorism? Is this terrorism? Is this terrorism?’ They need to step back and look at the situation as a whole.”

Competitiveness, Culver said, “can lead to some pretty flawed decision-making.”

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Young girls wear Hijab and chat among themselves after a recent Friday Prayer at the East Side Mosque of Madison.

UW-Madison student Alam feels that the media portrays Muslims in a bad light in order to attract a larger audience.

“The dangerous rhetoric of Islamophobia sparks even more hatred towards Muslims,” she said.

Culver said a lack of diversity in newsrooms also hurts coverage.

“We don’t have people practicing a rich variety of faiths among newsrooms. The average newsrooms are white males from middle to upper class and we see a lot more men than women,” she said.

She said the media should be out talking to people in their community and building trust so that they understand situations like Chablout’s, who did not feel safe leaving her house.

“Those are the things we need to pay attention to as news media and also responsibly report on communities,” she said.

Nihal Ahmad, a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said the term “fundamentalist Christian” is never used in the media when a Christian commits a crime.

“The media should not call these terrorists Muslim extremists because they are not Muslim in the first place because they are not following Islam,” Ahmad said.

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Haddijatou Tunkara, an advocate for gun control and a young Muslim residing in Madison said, "If a person has a Muslim name and brown skin color they are automatically called terrorist, unlike many other instances where the shooter gets away by having a mental disability."

Imam Jallow thinks the solution is to educate journalists about Islam.

“The media needs to separate what is Islam and what an individual is doing,” Jallow said. “We are Americans and we obey the same law as every other U.S. citizen.”

Focusing on religion neglects real issues behind the crimes, some said.

“If a person has a Muslim name and brown skin color they are automatically called terrorist, unlike many other instances where the shooter gets away by having a mental disability,” said Haddijatou Tunkara, a young Madison Muslim.

Media critics are concerned, Culver said, that once the label of terrorism is applied to Islam, it transforms coverage and people lose sight of the situation and its relationship to other social issues like mental illness.

When Tunkara learned about the Orlando shooting from a Buzzfeed notification on her phone, she was devastated.

“The first thing the media mentioned was that he is a Muslim and not the fact that he might have a mental disability,” Tunkara said.

Tunkara is an advocate for gun control and said that is the issue to focus on: “It shouldn’t be that easy for someone to get a gun and carry out such a heinous attack.”

Culver agreed that the role of guns can be overlooked.

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Sohail Siraj, owner of Best Brains Learning Center commented on the media coverage that Muslims receive these days and said,” Media is playing a critical role towards portraying Islam in a negative way and sadly it is the prime source of information for the masses.”

“If you look at cases not just like Orlando or San Bernardino, in fact all cases involving mass killings, we have never really come to terms with as a society to accept the toll of guns in this country,” she said.

The recent attacks have prompted local Muslims to hold interfaith events to inform people about Islam.

Bin Dada, a consultant at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, said Muslims should have been reaching out to the community since 9/11.

“We shouldn’t wait for these attacks to happen in order to realize that we need to be more involved in the community,” he said.

Local efforts mirror larger initiatives around the country, such as those by the American Friends Service Committee in Washington, D.C. AFSC collaborates with Muslim, Christian and Jewish faith-based organizations to confront and eliminate Islamophobia.

“Muslim Americans are put in a corner where they are either accused of being terrorists or seen as objects that will be used as insinuating terrorism,” said Raed Jarrar, government relations manager in AFSC’s office of public policy and advocacy.

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UW-Madison student, Afra Alam who is of Bangaldeshi descent and was born in Waukesha expressed her feelings about wearing a Hijab and said, “It is unnerving when people just blatantly keep staring at you in public if you’re wearing a Hijab,” Alam said. “People have such crazy hairstyles but that is more acceptable in public than me wearing a scarf over my head.”

“We try to fight against legislation that will increase discrimination against Muslim Americans,” he said. “Changing the prevailing narrative about Islam and Muslims in the U.S. is very important — about Islam being a foreign religion that is associated with negative values is one of the issues that many organizations are trying to push for. Islam is not a foreign religion to the United States.

“There is no narrative out there that says Muslims Americans are equal to Americans. We should not be holding them to another bar to prove their American-ness and prove they deserve to be in this country.”

Best Brains Learning Center’s Siraj agrees.

“We need to show people we are the same human beings as you are, we have the same heart as you do, and we have the same feelings as you do,” he said.

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