Jenan Jondy, outreach coordinator for the Islamic Center of Maine, may not remember me. But I remember her.
It was the fall semester of 2010 at the University of Maine. I was enrolled in an intercultural communication class with professor Kristin Langellier which required students to take on a research project. I chose to examine intercultural communication barriers between Muslim-Americans and the white, Christian majority in the United States.
This led me to Jenan, who graciously agreed to meet with me for an interview and pleasantly answered question after question in an unambiguous and enlightening manner. It was more than an interview; it was a dialogue. It was a dialogue in which I learned so much (in a short time) about a religion and group of people that are all too often stigmatized in our Western culture and media.
So what was my solution to breaking down these intercultural barriers that had been constructed against Muslim-Americans? Education and outreach. They are simplistic yet effective, which is why each year I am thrilled to see the Islamic Center of Maine hold an open house.
When reading the comments on Judy Harrison’s Feb. 5 BDN article, “‘Quran: Learn It or Burn It?’ draws 200 to Orono mosque Saturday,” I was hoping to see online responses from the 200 people who did attend the open house at the center. I was hoping for comments about the warm hospitality, informative dialogue and educational information. Instead, the comment thread was filled with hundreds of comments trying to condemn Islam using Internet sources and their own knowledge as their defense.
To all those who posted negative comments, who are confident in their statements and, most of all, who have never taken the time to speak with a Muslim man or woman in our community, I encourage you to stop the online banter and do what I did: engage in dialogue.
The Muslim community in our very own Bangor region is open and willing to answer questions, even some of the most heavy-hitting ones regarding extremism and terrorism. Rather than stay at the comfort of your computer, why not be brave like our Muslim friends in Orono and step out of your comfort zone? Get your information straight from the source. Seek to understand rather than condemn.
“Why?” you may ask, and ask you should. As Americans, we take great pride in our freedoms and that no one forces us to do anything. But I ask you to think of something that is extremely important to you or that makes up your identity — who you are and how you portray yourself to others.
For many, it is being an American itself. Keeping that in mind, how do you feel when others criticize American society? Be it our government, ways of life or culture? It doesn’t feel good. Just like it doesn’t feel good when people learn I’m Roman Catholic and make a quip about child sex abuse scandals.
But rather than get angry, I shake off their quips and try to share with them the truth about the Catholic faith, what it has done for me and countless others and why it is an important part of my identity.
I do this because negativity and misunderstanding breeds animosity. There is a path that can be taken to avoid such animosity, and that is education. It doesn’t have to be a college lecture or even an open house at the Islamic Center. It can be a simple conversation between two people sharing ideas, thoughts, concerns and questions and bridging the gap that could quite possibly lead to adverse relations.
As Jenan told me over a year ago, “Freedom comes with a responsibility, and that is education.” That stuck with me. And it should stick with you too.
There are endless amounts of information on the Internet, television and in magazines, and we are free to read or listen to whichever information we choose. But as Americans, it our responsibility to absorb information from all spectrums and avoid one-sidedness. If we do so, the hostility that so many feel for Muslims can begin to fade away and, in its place, mutual understanding and even friendship can manifest.
Matthew McLaughlin is a 2011 graduate from the University of Maine and holds a B.A. in communication. He lives in Brewer.