After the arrest of 17 Muslim terror suspects last weekend in Ontario, Canada, Mamoun Najjar, the outreach director for the Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement (RICMA), was impressed by the reaction of Toronto Mayor David Miller. Miller, says Najjar, noted that Canadian Muslims “were shocked like everyone else” to hear of the bomb plot. Similarly, Najjar, a Jordanian-born physician, says that local Muslims oppose extremist acts and strongly support efforts by law enforcement to combat terrorism.
The risks facing Muslims in the post 9/11 age are never far away, though. Najjar points, for example, to how a major Toronto mosque was vandalized after the suspects were arrested last weekend.
“Overall, people in Rhode Island are friendly,” he says, but the events of 9-11 were so overwhelming that a climate of misunderstanding and suspicion persists toward Muslims, both in Rhode Island and elsewhere. September 11, the war in Iraq, and the tenor of the Bush administration have all made Muslims much more visible to Americans, and not always in a good way.
Najjar notes how the last five years have seen a national increase in hate crimes, including vandalism to mosques and Muslim-owned stores, as well as anti-Muslim graffiti and other acts of intimidation and stereotyping. He did not specify any local acts of overt discrimination, but suggests that unpleasant stares at women wearing traditional attire, or obscene gestures directed at people who appear to be Muslim, are generally not reported.
The Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement (www.ricma.org) was formed several years ago as an umbrella group, in part to address these concerns by facilitating relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. In one such example, after the international controversy over cartoons featuring the prophet Muhammad, RICMA held a March forum at Brown University on “Responsible Freedom of Speech,” featuring, among others, US Attorney Robert Clark Corrente; Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch; Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations; and Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Najjar, who moved to Rhode Island from New York two years ago, estimates there are between 4000 and 7000 Muslims in the state. It is a geographically, culturally, and racially diverse group, comprising Arabs, Asians, South Asians, Africans, and black Americans, as well as people of European origin and even Native Americans. “We have the whitest of the white and the darkest of the dark,” says Najjar.
After the cartoon debacle, local Muslim leaders assembled an action plan that included opening mosques to the public. RICMA has also joined with other Muslim organizations, as well as the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, government agencies, law enforcement, nonprofits and interfaith organizations to promote tolerance and understanding among different religious groups. “There are a lot of myths and misunderstanding about Muslims,” says Najjar, who sees education about Islam and its followers, as well as increased participation in politics and civic life, as keys to breaking down stereotypes “We see the effect almost immediately when we sit with people and literally say who we are and what we do.”