The executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations warns against a “normalization of hate” in a speech at Wake Forest University.
Nihad Awad warned during a talk at Wake Forest University on March 23 that if left unchecked, false propaganda denigrating Muslims and other religious and racial minorities could lead to barbarity similar to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, which resulted in the deaths of 6 million Jews, not to mention homosexuals, people with disabilities, Slavs, Roma and communists during World War II.
Awad is the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national organization dedicated to promoting understanding about Islam, defending civil rights and building coalitions with diverse groups.
“The past two years, ladies and gentleman, so many minorities have been attacked,” Awad said. “Latinos. Mexicans. Women have been denigrated. African Americans. People with disabilities. You name the minority, and they have been attacked in the past two years. It is very unfortunate that it became so convenient for people to spread fear and fearmongering for political reasons, and unfortunately it works. Sometimes selling fear is effective. Fear is abhorred, is rejected by people with common sense. For people who don’t know, it is a very selling product. In fact, it is a very profitable business to sell hate.
“We have seen it unfortunately in the past 100 years,” Awad continued. “We’ve seen it in Germany — what hate and hatemongering start and what they lead to. The Holocaust in Europe did not start with acts of violence. The Holocaust started with false propaganda against Jews in Europe.”
When one audience member asked Awad to comment on a recent incident in which a man talked about his desire to kill Muslims during a meeting of right-wing extremists in Kernersville, Awad assured them that the FBI is investigating the incident.
“I think we should be aware of what’s being said and what’s being done,” Awad said. “It is important for us to be alert. Definitely I urge the Muslim community centers to be on high alert in terms of taking security very seriously in terms of surveillance and monitoring. Work with the local police. Work with the neighborhood associations, with the interfaith communities, because when one community is under threat, other communities can be under threat, too.
“It is our business to be aware of our surroundings and make sure that we are not intimidated by fear, and we’re not scared,” he added. “This is our home country. We are not going anywhere.”
Beyond protecting the community, Awad urged mosques to adopt an “open house” policy of proactively inviting guests and the media, and encouraging guests “to ask any question they have on their mind.”
“Those people who are unaware and ignorant, and are willing to learn — open up to them and reach out to them,” Awad said. “And don’t just wait for them to knock on your door and come and visit. Invite, take the initiative because they may think that you don’t like them, that you hate them. They think that you are the aggressor. They think that you are the enemy, that you pose a threat to them. I’m not asking you to put yourself in danger, but I’m asking you to take the initiative.”
For the benefit of the non-Muslims in the audience, Awad provided a snapshot: “Muslims [in America] today are extremely diverse. We are in all 50 states. We are educated. We are 2 percent of the population, but also we are 2 percent of physicians.”
Despite the relative insignificance of Muslims as a share of the American population, it’s clear that many non-Muslims feel increasingly threatened, leading to an upsurge in acts of hate.
Awad said that according to an upcoming report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, “We believe 2016 was the worst year on record for American Muslims when it comes to hate crimes, acts of vandalism, discrimination, attacks on our civil and human rights.”
From 2008 to 2013, Awad said his organization has tallied $205 million in spending by what he called a “Core Network of Islamophobia” involving 33 full-time organizations dedicated “to stigmatize American Muslims.”
Hamdy Radwan, the imam at Annoor Islamic Center in Clemmons, asked Awad to comment on the pressure experienced by American Muslims to denounce terrorism.
Awad responded that American Muslims are in a difficult position. It’s obvious, he said, that people who commit violent acts in the name of ISIS or other extremist groups are deviants and criminals, and are acting outside of the bounds of the faith. He argued there is a double standard in that Christians, who are the majority religion in the United States, are not asked denounce Christians who bomb abortion clinics in the name of Christianity. Many American Muslims are frustrated and angry that he agrees to go on conservative programs like “The O’Reilly Factor” and denounce terrorism, Awad said, but he believes he has an obligation to do so.
Asked if he believes it’s worthwhile to open up a dialogue with President Trump, Awad said he isn’t interested in talking to the president as long as he promotes policies that target people because of their faith. He added that he can’t see himself talking to Trump as long as a cloud of suspicion remains over two of his top advisors, Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, due to news reports alleging links to white supremacist groups. Bannon and Gorka joined the administration after leaving Breitbart News, an extreme right website that takes a hostile stance toward the Council on American-Islamic Relations. In an early February article about Rep. Keith Ellison, Breitbart called the council “jihad-linked” and accused it of fomenting “toxic Islamic ideology and aggressive Arab politics.”
Awad said in an interview after his talk that he considers it a “badge of honor” to be demonized by Breitbart, adding, “If we weren’t I would worry that we were doing something wrong.”
Awad quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King’s statement that oppressed people will remember not the words of their enemies, but the inaction of their friends.
“When you read the news and you see hateful comments, it’s your obligation to stop it, to speak up because it will burn you,” he said. “You will send a very wrong message for your children, for your siblings. That’s why I believe when we see it we have to act against it. It doesn’t have to affect you in order to take action.
“You have to take action, not when it’s easy or convenient, but when it’s right,” he continued. “When it’s right, that’s the time to step in. You have to speak truth to power. And that’s why I believe hateful individuals and groups, while they think they are powerful, they are weak. They are powerful because we are silent, and our silence is empowering to them.”
Awad expressed confidence that Trump’s policies will ultimately be defeated.
“We have seen that our media is independent,” he said. “We have seen that our judiciary is on the alert. Our system of checks and balances works very well. Does it mean that we need to be complacent and we need not to take action? Of course it doesn’t.”
Awad, who was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan and emigrated to the United States where he became a citizen, said his faith in America was tested by Trump’s election. But multiple “acts of kindness” after the election persuaded him that he made the right choice.
“When armed bikers protested in front of a mosque in Arizona they were outnumbered by other Americans who came in solidarity with the Muslim community,” Awad said. “That’s the America I signed up for. And that’s the America I believe in. And that’s the America we should continue to work for.”
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