Panel addresses status of U.S.-Muslim relations

Tina Peng

To repair the relationship between America and the Muslim world, citizens and leaders on both sides must confront stereotypes and miscommunications, a panel of five experts said Tuesday night.

About 150 students and community members attended the “Hope, Not Hate” town hall meeting at the McCormick Tribune Center.

The panel, sponsored by Northwestern’s chapter of Americans for Informed Democracy, is one of more than 30 discussions scheduled across America.

The panel included Gillian Sorensen, a senior adviser and national advocate at the United Nations Foundation, and Yaser Tabbara, executive director of the Chicago Council on American-Islamic Relations, among others.

Sorensen emphasized that education is vital to combat stereotypes about Americans as immoral and Muslims as terrorists.

“Clearly nobody is born a bigot; nobody is born knowing how to hate,” Sorensen said. “The role of leadership, of teaching in every sense, is key.”

Students must take responsibility to change perceptions, she added.

“We of the older generation will do what we can, but we place our best hope in you,” she said.

Tabbara also confronted stereotypes about the Muslim community.

The world’s 1.4 billion Muslims cannot be seen as all holding the same extremist mentalities, but the American media reinforces that stereotype, he said.

Instead of covering the opinions and actions of moderate Muslims, he said, most news stories focus on individual Muslims’ alleged connections to terrorism and perpetuate a “cycle of misinformation.”

“There are no facts reported there,” he said. “People filter out the ‘may haves’ and ‘maybes.’ They just see the words ‘Islam’ and ‘terrorists,’ and voila.”

Danielle Lemack, vice president for Families of September 11, said such a dialogue is necessary to confront the deterioration of U.S.-Muslim relations.

“We need to understand them and we need to try and help them understand us,” said Lemack, whose mother was aboard American Airlines Flight 11.

The upcoming presidential election is especially important for foreign relations, said Noreen Ahmed-Ullah, a Chicago Tribune writer who reported in Pakistan and Afghanistan and currently covers the Muslim world.

According to Ahmed-Ullah, many Muslims understand the distinction between American citizens’ opinions and the American government’s actions, but this could be compromised.

“Come November, if the American public chooses to elect George Bush, it’ll be much harder to explain to the Muslim world actions against them,” she said.

Though the speakers all cited misunderstanding as one cause of today’s U.S.-Muslim relations, some audience members questioned whether some extremists understand yet still hate Americans.

Medill School of Journalism Prof. Marda Dunsky, a panel member who has worked as an editor at the Chicago Tribune and an Arab affairs reporter at the Jerusalem Post, said American citizens can be implicitly connected to American foreign policy.

“They see our policies as representative of ourselves, (because we live) in a free and democratic society,” she said.

Weinberg freshman Marwa Mekki, who is Muslim and whose parents are immigrants from Iraq, said she has family members in the Middle East and travels there often. She said attitudes toward America are slowly changing.

“In the new generation, we’re seeing a lot of respect for the values,” Mekki said, “But what a lot of people want to see is those values being translated to the rest of the world … in a positive way.”

After the event, Mekki said she appreciated the panelists’ discussion.

“They kind of drove home the point that there should be a dialogue,” she said

The panel was Americans for Informed Democracy’s first event at NU. The group’s next event will be a videoconference discussion on Oct. 12 with about 40 students at the Institute for Koranic Studies in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Reach Tina Peng at [email protected]