Fear and hate have become a dominating voice in society today; we as are constantly bombarded with news about ISIS, violence in Iraq and Syria and many other places, terrorist attacks and threats of terrorist attacks, and a lot of prejudice against Muslims and refugees in the US and Europe… the world feels pretty scary these days. Our decisions are too often directed by fear, and attacks against Muslims are on the rise.
Yet I am often reassured by conversations with young people, who are still idealistic and hopeful and familiar with the diversity of their communities. They know that the world should be better, that in CAN be better. With encouragement, support, and guidance, this emerging generation can become a powerful force for good.
Unfortunately, this is where we—as youth workers, parents, teachers, and pastors—often fail to help them. Their idealism often crashes into reality, with the complicated questions of “What can a single teenager do?” and “Who will listen to me?” and “How do I even get involved?”
So for the young person who wants to know how to stand against fear, hate, and Islamophobia, and for the adults who want to help them do so, here are a few steps to spreading a better message of hope and understanding. (A note: this is primarily directed at teenagers and young adults who are part of the dominant, majority culture—in the West, that’s white and middle class. While all of this is also helpful for minority young people, right now it is the young people born with the assumed privilege of social acceptance who need work hard to make society safer and better.)
How To Stand Against Fear, Hate, and Islamophobia:
1. Educate Yourself.
The world is thoroughly interconnected, and all manner of information is available with just a few taps on your phone or computer. Take the time to learn! Who are Muslims, and what do they believe? How are the different in your country compared to other places in the world? What is actually happening in the Middle East? Why are refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq, and who are they? Why are people so worried about Muslims and refugees, anyway?
Read, watch videos, ask questions, and learn as much as you can. But do so critically—if something feels biased (from either the Left or the Right), keep looking for information based on facts, statistics, interviews, and history. There’s never just one side to a story; keep looking for other angles.
An Encouragement: Educating yourself can feel big and overwhelming, because there is a LOT of information out there, and even the experts disagree about stuff. That’s ok—you don’t need to be an expert. You need to learn just enough so that you aren’t afraid, and that you can tell the difference between truth and fact, and propaganda and fear-mongering. For everything else, you can keep learning as you go!
A Caution: Remember that no matter how much you have learned, you’re still only speaking for yourself. You’re not Muslim, you’re not an immigrant or refugee (unless you are!)—you’re someone who wants to be a friend and ally. Speak as an ally, but don’t try to speak for the people you’re supporting.
2.Make friends with someone different.
It’s one thing to read and learn a lot; it’s another thing altogether to get to know someone who is different than you. But the most powerful way to change yourself, and to see other people change, is through friendship with people who are different.
Are there any Muslims in your school or at work? Find an opportunity to have a friendly conversation with them! Is there a mosque or a Muslim community in your town? Ask if you can visit the mosque, or see if they have youth you can meet, or are hosting any public events. Grab a friend and bring them along!
Some communities have charities that try to help young people of different faiths get to know each other. For example, in the UK The Feast and in the US the Interfaith Youth Core do a great job. Look and see if you have anything similar near you.
If all else fails, there is always the internet. Via Facebook groups, forums and chatrooms, Instagram, and anything else you can think of, find ways to connect with diverse groups of people. As always when you’re making friends on the Internet, be safe and smart about the information you share with people you’ve never met.
An Encouragement: It can be pretty intimidating to try to make a new friend on purpose, but most people are pretty friendly. It can be as simple as “Hi, I’d really like to get to know some people different than me, and you seem pretty cool. Want to to hang out sometime?” Everyone appreciates genuine compliments, and most people are cool with honest and respectful questions.
A Caution: When making a new friend, remember that they are an individual! They have their own story, their own likes and dislikes, their own opinions and beliefs. They do not speak for all Muslims, all refugees, or whatever other “category” they might fall into. Treat them like a normal person, and get to know them like a normal person… because they are a normal person.
3. Don’t tolerate hate and fear.
Now you know a little bit, can ask good questions and tell the difference between truth and propaganda, and have a few relationships with Muslims. Hopefully you’re now more confident speaking up against hate language, if you weren’t before.
The language and practice of hate, fear, and Islamophobia comes up in many ways; it can be direct and obvious, like attacks on people in the street or insults like “raghead” or “sand ni–er”. It can be silent glares when people pass in public, or crossing to the far side of the street to keep their distance. Or can be more subtle ignorance and fear, like the casual assumptions that all brown people are Muslims, all Muslims are terrorists and hate democracy, or that “those people” can’t fit into our society and just need to go home.
Don’t put up with it and don’t ignore it. If you witness direct acts of hate or violence, call the police (or teachers or someone in charge) and comfort the victim if you’re able. If you see a Muslim getting the “look” on the street, make a point to be friendly or perhaps even strike up a conversation. If you hear people speaking out of fear and ignorance—especially if they are friends or family or people who already trust you—ask them to clarify and try to offer better language, a new perspective, or more accurate information so that they aren’t making broad stereotypical assumptions based in misunderstanding.
An Encouragement: It isn’t your job to change everyone’s mind, and you can’t change people without their consent. Focus on speaking truth and compassion into your friendships, relationships, and places you already have influence. You have a lot of power in the places where you are known and trusted—use it for good!
A Caution: Remember that you’re fighting Hate and Fear, not the people who spread it. Don’t turn people into the enemy; don’t be mean and insult people; and don’t get into pointless Facebook arguments with people who just want to cause drama. Just keep speaking the truth with confidence, patience, and compassion. The people who are ready to listen, will.
Eventually, you might want to start working for more social change, cultural understanding, or better legislation. It’s time to get involved in something bigger!
Stop and think—what sort of change do you want to help make happen? Do you want to help people of different backgrounds make friends with each other? Perhaps you want to help encourage Christians and Muslims and other faiths get along and work for the good of the community. You might like to spread positive stories about Islam and Muslims in your country. Or maybe you want to advocate for direct legislation or social action related to hate crimes, discrimination, accepting and supporting refugees, or something else?
If you don’t already know of groups working on something you care about, then this is where the internet is your friend—search for it! Depending on where you live, you might find something in your own community. You might end up having to travel to an urban area in your region. Or you might a way to get involved online. But find something that you’re passionate about, and get involved however you feel you can—write letters to senators, volunteer with projects, show up at events, help them fundraise, use your creative talents to spread their message… charities are almost always glad to have more people to help out.
An Encouragement: Thanks to the joys of the internet, getting involved and finding information is easier than ever before. Even if you can’t find something local, there are plenty of groups, charities, and projects that are happy to accept help from afar.
A Caution: Remember it’s not up to you to fix everything. Find something that you get excited about, and work with someone who is making a real difference, but remember that you also have to eat, sleep, go to school, do your homework, go to work, hang out with your friends/family/significant other, and occasionally relax and have fun.
5. Organise Your Own Events.
After you’ve gotten involved a bit, have you started to notice anything missing? Some sort of work or advocacy or voice that should be present, but isn’t? Maybe people in your school don’t know about, or care about, important things happening around the world. Or perhaps there are people of different faiths in your town who have no idea how to talk to each other. Or maybe there is an issue or perspective that is being ignored locally or nationally.
Whatever it is, find a way to address it and go! Host an event, organise a get-together, or start a non-profit (a lot of young people are doing this in the US!). Find some friends who are interested, or partner with like-minded people you’ve met along the way, or enlist the help of a teacher/youth leader/parent or some other caring and responsible adult. Just be clear about what your goal is, and share your vision with as many people as you can so they can get involved, too!
An Encouragement: Whatever you do, it doesn’t have to be perfect, and it’s ok if you’ve never done it before! The point is, you’re trying to do something that no one else is doing. Find wise and experienced people to help, and take their advice, but don’t be afraid of messing up and figuring things out as you go. It will keep getting better.
A Caution: Again, get other people involved—this isn’t about you! Find friends to help, get experienced adults to help with the logistics, and get advice from people who care about the issue. If you know of charities or online groups, talk to them for ideas and information. If you are doing something related to Muslims, refugees, or minority groups, try to get their input and involvement. The worst thing is to put on a big event that you thought of yourself, only to have your Muslim friend tell you afterward that it wasn’t very helpful at all.
6. Use social media well.
Your social media presence is an important aspect of your voice; think about what you post or comment, because your online and offline personalities both represent you.
Focus on sharing things that are true. Share good, hopeful, and encouraging stories. Raise awareness of issues without villianising people. Don’t get trapped in pointless Facebook debates, and never, ever feed the trolls. Remember, we’re fighting against fear and hate; we want to bring people together in cooperation and understanding, not make them into bigger enemies than they already might be.
An Encouragement: Thanks to social media, our ability to spread things that are true, good, and important is more powerful than ever before!
A Caution: Thanks to social media, our opportunities to get angry, misunderstand, and create frustration and confusion are also more powerful—and more visible—than ever before.
7. Tell your story.
In all of this, your own personal story is the most powerful tool you have. People are rarely changed by facts and statistics, by news articles and shared blog posts. They are changed by stories.
If you tell your story of how you have changed, grown, and learned through your own friendships with Muslims and others who are different (with their permission, of course), people will listen. If you tell your story about how you overcame your fears, people will listen. If you tell your story about how you used to think one thing about refugees, but then met some and learned something totally different, people will listen.
Telling your own story shows that you’re actually involved, not just repeating what you’ve heard. It makes it seem less-scary for others to build their own friendships with people who are different. It opens the door for you to invite people to come and join you. But if nothing else, people will listen.
An Encouragement: Your story doesn’t have to be huge or world-changing; it just has to be real and honest. There’s no such thing as a story that’s not good enough.
A Caution: If you tell your story, people will listen. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will understand, or that they will change their mind, or that they will act any differently! Don’t get disappointed if you don’t get the reaction you hoped for; the point is that they listened. Keep telling your story, and change will happen when people are ready for it.
If you’ve read this far, you’re already on the journey! We’d love to hear your own experiences with this. Are there other ways to resist Islamophobia that we’ve missed? Any experiences, good or bad, with the ideas above? Let us know!