09/09/2010

SPLC Engaging Children in Dialogue about Anti-Muslim Sentiment

As we mark the anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy and remember its victims, the signs of a renewed backlash against the Muslim population are everywhere.

In New York, a cab driver was stabbed and slashed after a passenger asked if he were Muslim. Also, a man urinated on prayer rugs at a mosque while shouting anti-Muslim slurs.

In Jacksonville, Fla., a pipe bomb exploded in an Islamic center occupied by 60 worshippers.

In Tennessee, an arsonist torched construction equipment at the site of a planned mosque. 

These apparent hate crimes, and others, have come amid an ugly debate over whether an Islamic center should be built near Ground Zero. Unfortunately, reasoned dialogue has been drowned out by incendiary denunciations of Islam itself, creating a dangerous situation for millions of Muslims in the United States and, as General David Petraeus has pointed out, for U.S. troops overseas.

Although most recognize that any religious group has the right to build a place of worship at a place of its choosing, some – Newt Gingrich among them – actually contend that Muslims should not be allowed to build the Islamic center near the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York. Many more pay lip service to religious freedom but condemn its exercise in such vitriolic terms as to create an atmosphere where violence is all but inevitable.

With all the constant vilification, one has to wonder about the peace of mind of the hundreds of thousands of Muslim children – American children – in our nation's schools. As they hear their religion condemned and their patriotism questioned, they surely are experiencing an increasing sense of isolation and fear. They must wonder whether their classmates are turning against them. They must wonder whether they and their families will be safe in their own communities.

For this reason, our Teaching Tolerance program is urging educators to commemorate 9/11 by using this opportunity to help students overcome misconceptions about Islam, confront stereotypes and deepen their understanding of different religious beliefs. We're offering lesson plans for every grade level to address these issues.  

It's important that we not only think about the impact of our words on our country's children but that we also engage them in a dialogue so that they can lead the way toward a more respectful society. 

In the days following 9/11, President George W. Bush delivered a speech to Congress in which he defined the terrorists who attacked us as radical extremists who reject the peaceful teachings of Islam. He punctuated his speech with calls for religious tolerance. "No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith," the president told the nation.

It's a reminder, not just for our nation's school children, but for all Americans.