A familiar unease for local Muslims

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SHAFAQNA – As an American Muslim who wears the hijab, a veil that covers her head and chest, newly elected Middletown school board member Michelle Novak has been called a terrorist by passing drivers and been spat at.

One way the mother of four deals with the stress of such situations is to put herself out there in the community even more, so more people get to know a Muslim who is a good person, rather than the far-too-popular caricature of a crazed Muslim terrorist.

Novak hopes more people who share her adopted faith – she was raised Catholic – will take that same approach, to let the world know that the vast majority of Muslims are peace-loving people. In fact, she personally doesn’t consider those who commit terrorist acts to be practicing Muslims.

“The perpetrators on 9/11 and the perpetrators in Paris, I never really considered them practicing in the same religion that I practice,” Novak said. “Although they call themselves Muslims, I really think they have a completely different understanding from myself and from, really, anyone I’ve interacted with, who’s a Muslim in the United States.”

“I’ve learned that the terrorists, they tend to be people who are on the fringes of the community, that don’t really come to the mosques,” she said. “They’re isolated. And I think anybody, whether Muslim or Christian, who fits that description – someone who’s isolated and very alienated – they can be very scary people.”

American Muslims find themselves in a bind, she says. On the one hand, they experience hatred from fellow Americans who buy into the belief that all Muslims endorse terror. On the other hand, the Miamisburg native believes, Muslims don’t want to speak too loudly against terrorism out of fear that they or their families will be targeted by terrorists, who seem to come down harder on Muslims than any other religious group.

Rhys Williams, a sociology professor at Loyola University of Chicago, who used to teach at the University of Cincinnati, says he hasn’t heard many Muslims speak about the fear of being targeted by terrorists for speaking out against them.

“Of course, saying I haven’t heard about it doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, or there isn’t that concern,” Williams said. “But I’ve heard much less about that than I’ve heard the frustration from particularly members of American Muslim civic organizations about their denunciations of terrorism being ignored.”

Novak herself was raised Catholic. Part of what drew her to Islam was its traditional family values that reminded her of her Italian Catholic grandmother, who used to cover her head while attending Mass.

“I do become afraid, but I don’t want it to control my life,” she said. “My approach is to help in the community more, become more active with helping the homeless, helping the people in my community that don’t have food, the children who need clothes.”

“That’s kind of my coping mechanism to deal with my fear, is to be out in the community more, and do more service,” she said.

Novak also has worked to get churches, mosques and synagogues to work together.

She wishes more Muslims, rather than containing their service work to mosques, would get out into the community. That way, when the words “Muslim terrorist” show up on television screens, more people can say, “Well, my neighbor’s Muslim, and they’re very nice.” Or, “I volunteer with this person at the homeless shelter, and so I know not all Muslims are like that.”

Williams, who has studied non-Christian immigration to the United States, says he understands why many Muslims these days are less eager to put themselves out there in society, given the backlash against their faith. But Novak’s strategy is good for diffusing some of the hatred, he said.

“It’s a fairly well-established principle in sociology that personal contact with people over time tends to diminish prejudice,” Williams said. “Particularly if she is consistently in settings where she works with people and they get to know her in a more well-rounded personal setting. That tends to lower prejudice.

“The sociologist Robert Putnam calls this the ‘My pal, Al syndrome.’ When you get to know people, they just seem less scary,” Williams added. “It’s one of the things that’s responsible for greater tolerance in the U.S.”

“On the other hand, they (Muslims) face a lot of backlash right now,” he said. “And I can understand wanting to be very careful about it, and being very concerned about their own safety.”

Novak and Williams both encourage people to feel free to ask Muslims about their religion, in genuine, non-combative ways.

“We’re not embarrassed,” Novak said. “We love our religion, and actually, it’s encouraging when people show an interest. It really makes us feel more accepted, and that people really are trying to learn. And that’s encouraging for Muslims. And I think it helps to have that dialogue, and we appreciate that.”

Levels of animosity that Muslims vary widely, even within the same community, says Shakila Ahmad, president of the board for the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati in West Chester.

“We’re blessed to be in a good, sound, well-educated community,” Ahmad said. “I think people certainly have their biases, but they’re informed enough, they’re generally aware enough about the work that the center does that in some ways we’re a little shielded from some of the severe outward bias and bigotry that goes on.”

However, Ahmad added: “In no way are we immune.”

“We as Muslim Americans, and we as an American institution, are committed to this country, to fellow citizens of all faiths, and to our neighbors, in particular, in this region,” she said. “We encourage our neighbors to come and get to know us, and to really learn for themselves what Islam and Muslims are all about, instead of taking hate rhetoric or the actions of people who are the antithesis of our faith that are committing any heinous criminal acts, taking or hurting innocent lives.”

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