During a recent interfaith event at the Islamic Center of Cleveland, local teens were surprised to learn that wearing a hijab was considered an honored rite of passage and a personal choice by the Cleveland State University students who led an open discussion about their faith, family traditions, and experiences growing up Muslim in Northeast Ohio.
It’s estimated that 70% of Americans don’t know anyone who is Muslim, and even fewer people have an accurate understanding of Islam — as a peaceful religion and way of life — leaving room for a wide variety of stereotypes and misperceptions. In recent years, Muslims have increasingly become targets of discrimination, Islamophobia and hate crimes. To counter this, local organizations are working to change people’s perceptions of Islam and Muslims. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is one such organization, and one of their signature events is “Teatime for Peace” held at various locations throughout Cleveland.
With its national headquarters based on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, CAIR is at the center of ensuring civil liberties for American Muslims. The national organization started in 1994 and now has more than 35 regional offices and chapters nationwide, making it America’s largest Muslim civil liberties organization.
CAIR-Ohio opened in 1998 in Columbus and, in 2003, added a Cleveland office. A Cincinnati office followed in 2004.The Cleveland chapter, which serves Northern Ohio, is a busy and dynamic place. After all, Cleveland, itself, has a sizable Muslim population and is home to 15 mosques (masjid).
The goals of CAIR-Ohio are to protect the civil rights of American Muslims, to dispel stereotypes associated with Islam, to empower Muslim Americans to be civically and politically engaged, and to “build coalitions to promote social justice and mutual understanding.” Representation and support are big themes. CAIR-Ohio has attorneys on staff to provide free or low-cost legal representation for Muslims, those perceived as Muslims, and others who are subject to religious discrimination.
Visit their website, and you can find access to a variety of educational tools that ensure you know your rights and know what to do in certain situations–responding to discrimination, hate crimes or school bullying; understanding what to do if DHS or the FBI contact you; knowing your rights as a traveler, etc.
Essentially, the goals are to ensure that Muslim Americans are afforded the same protections granted by the Constitution that everyone else receives and to diffuse Islamophobia. According to CAIR, Islamophobia is “closed-minded prejudice against or hatred of Islam and Muslims. An Islamophobe is an individual who holds a closed-minded view of Islam and promotes prejudice against or hatred of Muslims.” Questioning Islam or Muslims is not Islamophobia.
CAIR’s website details an array of anti-Muslim bias incidents from 2014 through 2019, with the majority falling under the harassment category. Violent extremist factions plague any religion. Unfortunately, Muslims in America have suffered guilt by association due to the terrorist acts of some who claim to be Muslim but who have violated the tenants of Islam. CAIR-Cleveland aims to present an accurate understanding of the faith of Islam, which centers on the concepts of peace, mercy, and forgiveness.
According to the Islamic Center of Cleveland, “The word ‘Islam’ means peace and submission. Peace means to be at peace with yourself and your surroundings. Submission means submission to the will of God. A broad meaning of the word ‘Islam’ is to achieve peace by submitting to the will of God.”
To learn more about Islam and what it means to be a Muslim in America, you can request a speaker from the organization to discuss topics such as Understanding Islam and Muslims 101, Being Muslim in Post 9/11 America, and Understanding Islam and Muslims for Educators, among other topics. Additionally, you can request to take a tour of the Islamic Center of Cleveland or enroll in their “Understanding Islam” classes, which are open to anyone.
The faith of Islam has more than 1.8 billion adherents, nearly a quarter of the world’s population. Islam is not new to America. There have been Muslims in America for centuries. It’s time for the wider public to learn more about this culture and religion and to get to know their Muslim neighbors. And it’s time for Muslim Americans to be afforded the same rights as all Americans.
If you are a Muslim and feel that you have faced discrimination based on your religion or if you want to get to know more about Islam and Muslims, contact CAIR-Cleveland.