Saturday, October 1

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The need for better dialogue

I had just bitten into a burger at a fast-food joint near the University of Jordan when I was presented with a question by one of my friends: “Do you think that I am a terrorist?” I giggled — our entire conversation thus far had been full of giggling. Since Arab humor was (and is) still very strange to me, I just assumed that this question was the latest addition to what had been a series of odd jokes made during our lunch.

I looked around at the three of them who were sitting patiently waiting for my answer. I wanted to withdraw my giggle. “No. Of course not,” I said very seriously. I wondered what drove these girls whom I had at this point gotten to know quite well to ask me such a question. “Of course not,” I repeated.

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And then suddenly I felt like I was lying. Not because I thought these lovely hijab-wearing ladies were terrorists — not at all. I realized that they weren’t asking if I (personally) thought that they (personally) were terrorists (specifically), but rather, they were asking if Americans thought Muslims were radical and a threat.

Most Americans don’t think that Muslims are terrorists, but misconceptions about Islam abound and Islamophobia is gaining more ground. The Center for American Progress explains that the phenomenon is the work of an “Islamophobia Network,” which is made up of a “group of misinformation experts guiding an effort that reaches millions of Americans.” Included in this network are Rep. Peter King and the blogger Robert Spencer. With $40 million funneling into the “Islamophobia Network,” it is no wonder that these names have become household ones.

The negative impact of this network is obvious. It has dramatically changed the American perception of Muslims here and abroad for the worse. An Abt SRBI poll last summer indicated that one in four Americans believe that “Muslims in the U.S. are not patriotic Americans” and nearly a third believe Muslims should be barred from the presidency. These Islamophobic feelings are not just the result of emotions stirred up in 2001. In fact, whereas 39 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view of Islam in 2002, that percentage has increased to 49 percent in 2010.

Nearly 10 years later, the objections to mosques — indeed, to anything related to Islam — seem to have grown to a worrying level. The greatest danger emerges when false and sensational information about Islam is made easily accessible to people who are unable to be critical of this information and, even worse, act irrationally in response to it. It was these misinformed motives that led a mentally unstable man in Norway to murder dozens of children and teenagers.

This event, in addition to King’s antics in Congress and the burning of copies of the Quran in Florida, indicates that a proper dialogue about Islam is missing in society. That is perhaps why Princeton organizations have invited members of this “Islamophobia Network” to campus. Nonie Darwish spoke at Whig Hall last year. The ‘Prince’ even printed an advertisement sponsored by the questionable David Horowitz Freedom Center.

The student body was divided about whether Darwish should be able to speak. It raised the important question of whether or not inflammatory speakers should be invited to campus. On that, my opinion is — absolutely. All sides of an argument must be voiced to have a productive dialogue. Islam should be discussed and understood. Furthermore, concerns about religious fanaticism should be addressed. But the question that remains is whether the organizations and individuals in the Islamophobia network are constructively contributing to this dialogue on campus and elsewhere. The answer is a pretty clear no.

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We experienced the unfortunate consequences of this failed dialogue last Saturday when Adam Pyle, a 26-year-old unaffiliated with the University and perhaps not entirely mentally stable, arrived at Campus Club and interrupted our Muslim Students Association’s welcome-back dinner. He began going through a student’s backpack, asking provocative questions and babbling about the Antichrist. The situation escalated; Pyle began screaming “death to Muslims” and Sohaib Sultan, the Muslim Chaplin, had to stand in between this man and the students until Public Safety arrived to arrest Pyle.

This is terrifying and outrageous.

Why haven’t we made a big deal about it on campus? Partly because the MSA does not want to upset students more. The MSA’s consolation is that this was an isolated incident. This may be the case; it could have been avoided. This event was the unfortunate result of an unstable person acting irrationally because of the sensational misinformation fed to him by the Islamophobia Network.

To prevent these types of incidents from occurring and to combat the unreasonable Islamophobia that is emerging in this country, we need better dialogue. Even with better dialogue, we can’t prevent people from doing crazy things, but we can present information in a less sensational context. Sensationalism drives people to act dangerously. Furthermore, we can make sure the information is levelheaded and, most importantly, accurate. For this dialogue to exist, we need correct information and people who can speak intelligently about Islam. We need a network of knowledge, not fear.

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Monica Greco is a Wilson School major from Brooklyn, N.Y. She can be reached at mgreco@princeton.edu.

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