By Marisa Barthel, chairwoman, Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue Committee
On March 15, Atlantic Institute, along with partners at Upstate International and the Interfaith Forum, hosted The WISE Up Town Hall Dialogue at the Hughes Main Library in downtown Greenville. This was a natural follow-up to a January 2018 Peace Panel, also held at the Hughes Library, that was very well-received by a standing-room-only crowd. At that event, faith leaders from across the Upstate shared their thoughts regarding the importance of action within the community to achieve peace. Among their remarks were reminders that “our differences are an illusion” and that “if we fear someone, we don’t know them.” In addition, attendees were challenged to instill in those around them “a love for learning about other religions” and to “become the change we want to see.”
WISE Up is a multifaceted, interfaith campaign to address the unfounded fears associated with Islam and Muslims and to prevent the spread of extremist ideology and hate crimes in America. At the heart of the WISE Up campaign is the 375-page research and evidence-based WISE Up Report, authored by 72 noted scholars, faith leaders, and public servants. In this resource, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, as well as other faith and civic, experts provide their expertise on practical ways to counter extremism, hate crimes, Islamophobia, and terrorism committed in the name of Islam by groups like ISIS.
According to the office of the executive editor of the WISE Up report,research has shown that one of the primary causes of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment is the conflation of Islam and Muslims with violent extremism; and, in turn, a big driver of violent extremist recruitment can be the existence of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment (which can lead to things like bullying and hate crimes).
However, given that “extremism” and “terrorism” are labels solely applied in the public discourse to acts perpetrated by self-proclaimed Muslims, and given that terrorism is seen as a “Muslim problem,” WISE Up represents a Muslim-led effort to 1) counteract the notion that extremism is just a Muslim problem, and 2) provide expert advice on how to address the problem of extremism (including hate crimes against Muslims and Islamophobia) in a holistic manner. In other words, the problem of terrorism/extremism cannot be solved without solving the problem of Islamophobia and hate crimes. As a Muslim-led project, WISE Up represents the voices of a broad spectrum of the American Muslim community on how all of these issues interplay with each other to create our current situation, and how we might solve these issues in tandem moving forward.
During the Town Hall, Daisy Khan, the executive editor of the WISE Up Report, highlighted for attendees some of the powerful graphics in the report aimed at countering the unfounded fears associated with Islam by arming members of the community, parents, police, educators, faith leaders, etc., with accurate information about Islam and Muslims, needed to achieve the following in communities across the USA:
•Wrestle away the negative headlines by amplifying voices of reason; •Set the record straight on Islam and Muslims; and •Distinguish between true Islamic teachings and fake extremist dogma.
After an interfaith panel explored with the attendees how this information might be used in the Upstate, Mrs. Khan honored six everyday local heroes, who have helped bridge communities of various background and who exemplify the efforts to promote greater understanding and dialogue across cultural lines. The collective hope of the interfaith and intercultural hosts is that the attendees of this Town Hall continue to seek opportunities to demonstrate that South Carolina, indeed, the USA, is strong not in spite of our differences but because of them.