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Challenging Islamophobia in America: Causes, Consequences and Solutions

  On Monday, January 11th, we went to the Old Stone Church in Public Square to attend a program titled "Challenging Islamophobia: Causes, Consequences and Solutions" sponsored by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Greater Cleveland Immigrant Support Network and the Interreligious Task Force on Central America (IRTF).

Despite the very cold weather about 30 people turned out for it, including Mr. Sherman A. Bishop, Senior Pastor of the Peace Lutheran Church in Westlake; and Ms. Lora Breyley, a retired Episcopal pastor from Medina.

We spoke for a moment with Mr. Bob Coughlin who volunteers at St. Mary's Church in Painesville. Mr. Coughlin told us that he remembers hearing Ms. Margaret W. Wong speak at an event several years ago and was very impressed by her.

The official "welcoming" was given by  Mr. Karl Johnson, an Elder at the Old Stone Church who reminded us that in the last few years about 30,000 Syrians have come into the United States and "only three have been a problem." He went on to say that the fantasies behind Islamophobia are not true and will not ever be true. This viewpoint reflected what was said in the three presentations which followed.

The first speaker was our friend, Mr. Isam Zaiem, co-founder of CAIR and its President Emeritus. Mr. IMG_6960Zaiem defined Islamophobia as "a social anxiety, a hatred for, and a prejudice towards Islam and Muslims. Islamophobia has existed for centuries but has become more explicit, more extreme and more dangerous in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This phenomenon promotes and perpetuates anti-Muslim stereotyping, discrimination, harassment and even violence. It negatively impacts the participation of American Muslims in public life."

He went on to talk about perceptions created by the media of Islam and Muslims, components of Islamophobia, the politicians and religious leaders who have contributed to the problem, how Sharia law has been depicted as a threat, and how our national security and immigration policies have been affected.

Near the the end of his presentation, Mr. Zaiem showed a slide that contained suggestions as to how this problem could be addressed. Some of them were for non-Muslims to to get to know the Muslim people in their communities and their workplaces and possibly visit their place of worship; to seriously question stereotypes and perceptions; invite and encourage Muslims to become more actively involved in their communities; to find ways to promote diversity; and confront and challenge bigotry.

The next speaker was Ms. Faten Husni Odeh, a young Muslim woman who is a professional history IMG_6958teacher. She recognized us from when she served an internship at the office of U.S. Congressman Dennis J. Kucinich (where we worked at that time). Ms. Odeh's parents immigrated to the U.S. from Palestine almost 30 years ago and she was born here. She said that Islamophobia was very hard for her to deal with because she had always been very proud to be an American and remembers singing the National Anthem in her fifth grade talent show.

Understandably, this was a tough time for Ms. Odeh because she felt that she was being told "in so many ways' that you do not belong here." It seemed to her that many people "missed a step" in their education and regarded history and social studies courses as "the first line of defense." Nevertheless, Ms. Odeh was aware of the discrimination faced by other ethnic groups in our countries history and said that "they weathered the storm and Muslims here will do the same."

During the Q and A, Ms. Odeh talked talked about her own experiences which, from a personal standpoint, were fortunately quite good. She said that the most hatred that she has seen has IMG_6991been on the news. In fact, she once studied journalism and regards a lot of it as very bad reporting.

The final speaker was Reverend Gregg Greer, very much involved with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who was in Cleveland visiting from Chicago. Reverend Greer praised the presentations of both Mr. Zaiem and Ms. Odeh. He then talked about how Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. had influenced his life. He was particularly poignant when he spoke of how he resigned from the U.S. Armed Forces because he didn't believe that we should go to war in the Persian Gulf in the late 1980's. He made effective use of a quote by James Madison that there will always be factions who act outside of public interests so we must all stand together.

Along these lines, Reverend Greer believed that 99% of all of the problems in the community can be resolved if people would learn to communicate and talk to each.

From the Old Stone Church, its was a mere walk around the block to our next event which was the annual post holiday reception of the International Business Network at the Club at Key Center.

The guest speaker was Mr. Chris McNulty, Director of Political and Community Affairs for the RNC, 2016 who gave us an update on happenings pertaining to upcoming event which will ultimately take place in July, 2016. He said that this was truly a bipartisan affair and local businesses can expect to do quite well while the convention is taking place but the real benefits will come after the convention because it is expected to raise the status of Cleveland in the eyes of the country and the world.

IMG_6990We have been to several programs about the RNC but we particularly liked this one because Mr. McNulty brought real insight to his presentation because he is an active partisan who has been involved in political conventions for years. We could tell that he really meant it when he said that it will not be a successful convention if it does not make Cleveland look good and Cleveland will not benefit if the RNC is not successful. Mr. McNulty is from Ohio and currently resides in Bay Village so he really wants things to go well.

In terms of what he said, we found it interesting that the Quicken Loans Arena (where the delegates will convene) will be equipped with the technology to allow great numbers of people to tweet, text and send emails all at once without hindrance and that there will not be as much bus traffic as other conventions because so many people involved will be staying downtown and there are a lot of restaurants and activities for them to attend there without the need of a vehicle.

We asked about efforts to portray Cleveland as an ethnically diverse city. Mr. McNulty replied that this is certainly paramount and the appropriate committee will be addressing this matter very shortly. He indicated that this is certainly how he and his associates would like to see Cleveland depicted and the only question is what the best way is to do this.

About 100 people turned out for the reception and we got to say hello to lot of people that we knew and meet quite a few ones. We visited with Mr. Eric Vogelbacher who we knew from his service in the United States Coast Guard when we worked for Congressman Kucinich.

We talked to Dr. Raj Aggarwal from the University of Akron about our recents visits to First Night Akron on New Year's Eve and the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce.

Ms. Maura O'Donnell from the Cleveland Council of World Affairs (CCWA) attended this event bringing with her Ms. Arbias Llolluni who is here from Kosovo studying at the Rochester Institute of Technogy and doing an Internship with the CCWA.

And there was Shaker Heights City Councilperson Debra Hegler who heard about the holiday party that Margaret W. Wong and Associates had last December 5th and asked if she could be invited next year because she admires Ms. Wong and heard that our party was a lot of fun. We told her that this was certainly manageable.


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