Islam and September 11: A Teacher’s Guide

Many Americans are first becoming acquainted with Islam in the context of the September 11 tragedy. Teachers face the challenge of helping students understand current events and the diversity of Muslim attitudes on religious and political issues.

We have fused the two lessons into one guide for teachers on Islam and September 11, mostly in the form of questions and answers. We begin with a discussion of the Muslim faith and its basic doctrine. We then provide a historical overview of the religion’s birth and the spread of Muslim civilization. Discussion of the global Muslim community profiles the vastness and diversity of the Muslim world today and puts American Muslims into a broader context.

This context helps students understand the Al-Qaeda organization, its historical roots, and the reasons for its limited popularity. Finally, we bring the lesson home to our multicultural society in America, and tackle the sensitive issues of American Muslims’ views on Al-Qaeda and the current war, and the evolving attitude of non-Muslim Americans toward the Muslim world.


Download the Teacher’s Guide as a PDF file.

Responding to Hate Speech: A Citizen’s Guide

American Muslims should be on the alert for two kinds of hate speech. The first is directed against Muslims, the second is spoken by Muslims.

In American society, especially after September 11, there is an undercurrent of anti-Muslim sentiment. Without being paranoid, we should be prepared to respond to anti-Muslim rhetoric when we encounter it. And we should remember that most Muslim Americans have experienced no such problems, but rather enormous support from friends and neighbors.

At the same time, within the Muslim community, hate speech often goes on unaddressed. Whether in conversations, sermons, or articles, American Muslims frequently encounter derogatory comments directed against Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Americans in general. Many of us have dismissed these as mere rhetoric, but – especially after September 11 – we cannot sit by quietly.

Responding to hate speech of any kind is difficult. It is much easier to stay silent, or to simply walk away. Sometimes this is the wisest choice. But you should feel empowered to confront hate speech directly: to tell people that their language is inappropriate and unacceptable.

Our brief citizen’s guide is designed to help individual American Muslims take a stand. It describes how to identify hate speech, considers common reactions to hate speech, and offers suggestions for appropriate responses. Above all, we hope this guide inspires American Muslims to speak out and contribute to a positive, tolerant climate in their own community.

What is hate speech?

One of the greatest liberties Americans enjoy is the right to free speech. But this does not mean that people can say whatever they want. Some offensive and racist comments are constitutionally protected. But speech that advocates direct, immediate violence against specific groups of people is illegal.

We take language seriously because hate speech can easily lead to violence. From the Nazis to the Ku Klux Klan to Al-Qaeda, history is filled with examples of groups whose hateful rhetoric quickly led to bloodshed. Whether or not you think specific comments will cause violence, you should care about hate speech because its consequences can be deadly – and, moreover, because it contributes to a social climate of antagonism and misunderstanding.

Contexts in which you encounter hate speech

  • Conversations between you and someone else
  • Casual group discussions
  • Public speeches: at community centers, in mosques, before political groups
  • The media: on the radio, on television, on websites, in newspapers and pamphlets

How to identify hate speech

We hesitate to offer examples of hate speech, because we do not want to inadvertently deepen its impact. But sometimes the best way to learn about intolerance is to face it directly. So we reluctantly offer some examples, both directed against Muslims and spoken by Muslims. To understand just how awful these phrases are, just replace “Muslim” or “Arab” with “Jew” or “Christian” – and vice versa.

  • Religious distinctions: “Judgment day will not occur until all the Jews are killed.” “The God of Islam is not the God of the Christian faith. It is a different God, and it is a very evil religion.”
  • Everyday speech: “Don’t be too friendly with him, he’s a Hindu.”
  • Political problems that need diplomatic solutions are recast as religious confrontations: “Kill the Jews and the Americans wherever you find them.” “Death to Arabs.”
  • Fears about unfamiliar groups: “We’re so sorry you are moving to New York. There are so many Jews there.” “I would never hire a guy with a towel on his head.”
  • Antagonism to different kinds of Muslims: “Shi’ites have tails.”
  • Disagreement expressed through violent language: “Death to America.”

Ways most people react

The most common reaction is to stay silent. Why speak out and make a fuss? It seems easiest to ignore the comment. Why be difficult? Move on and pretend nothing offensive was said. What difference does it make anyway?

How you can respond

First, take a minute and think about the specific reason the person’s speech was hateful. How were their comments derogatory? If you replaced one ethnic or religious group with another (say the group the speaker belongs to), would they be happy? The clearer you are in your mind about how their speech was wrong, the clearer you will be in responding.

Then, there are several options for action:

Talk to the person. Try to make them understand why what they said was wrong. Show them how by making the same comment, but with one ethnic or religious group replaced with the one the speaker belongs to.

Or you can wait until afterwards and write a letter. Perhaps you feel better expressing your thoughts carefully in writing. If you are afraid about signing your name, send the letter anonymously – but the letter will be more powerful if you aren’t shy. Be polite, but clear. And suggest that the speaker apologize and retract their comments.

If you are at a public event, stand up and ask a question. Tell the speaker that you disagree with their language. Or, afterwards, talk to the people around you. Find someone else, or even better a group of people, who were bothered by the speaker’s comments. Approach the speaker together after the talk and voice your concerns.

If you repeatedly encounter incidents of hate speech at a community center or congregation, you can always leave. Or you can find others members who share your concern, and together initiate an open and public discussion at the center or mosque about the rhetoric people are using. Your community center can adopt our Statement of Principles or a pro-tolerance speech code. Also, cities and towns often have human rights commissions. Officials from these commissions can be invited to discuss ways to combat hate speech.

If you see or hear hate speech in the media, there are many ways to make your outrage known. You can write a letter to the editor, you can call into a radio show, or you can contact the station manager. You can organize a group of people who share your disgust and publicly lobby the newspaper or radio station to make changes.

The bottom line

Above all, the best way you can respond to hate speech is not to think “There’s nothing I can do,” but to think: “There’s so much I can do.” Be creative, be persistent, and be confident. And please email us any suggestions or ideas you have for other ways to take action.

One of the only positive things about hate speech is that it can bring out the best in those people who speak out against it. If you feel bad about doing nothing in response to hate speech, just imagine how good you will feel if you stand up and make a difference!

For more information on teaching tolerance and responding to hate speech, see the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Atlanta-based organization that has been fighting racial and religious hatred in the United States for over 30 years.

A New Guide for Muslim Interfaith Dialogue

Download this Interfaith Guide as an Abode Acrobat (PDF) file


Religious pluralism – as exemplified by interfaith events – is one of our society’s greatest assets. Americans embrace pluralism because of our overriding faith in the dignity of individuals and the groups that they form, whether that dignity rests on religious or non-religious foundations. As individuals and groups, we comprise a variety of perspectives, personalities, ideas, and emotions.

Interfaith dialogue – in its American context – is in many ways a new phenomenon for Islam. In the United States, civil society has matured to the extent that people of different religions can meet and discuss each other’s faith on equal, respectful terms that reach mutual understanding. This occurs despite the fact that the central narratives and tenets of different religions often directly contradict one another. At the same time, interfaith dialogue with Islam is also new for America, as religious leaders struggle to engage the country’s new fastest-growing religion.

We want to help American Muslims celebrate diversity and difference, driven by a commitment to respect and receptiveness. This guide is designed to be both reflective and practical, to help Muslims and non-Muslims come together to strengthen what is best about America and our respective traditions.

The Problems so Far

In many communities across the country, there has been a critical breakdown in dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Part of this is due to strong undercurrents of hate speech in segments of the community, stemming from interpretations of religious traditions, political conflicts, and general ignorance. Moreover, since September 11, 2001, many Muslim Americans are confused about how to engage the American public.

* Interfaith dialogue is not about conversion. Some peoples’ conception of interfaith dialogue is focused on conversion, rather than mutual understanding. There are many books on how to convert others to Islam and on refutations of Christianity and Judaism. These publications reflect an attachment to the debates of an earlier era, not a contemporary respect for religious diversity. Conversion of non-Muslims should not be the aim of Muslim outreach programs. A dogmatic approach to interfaith encounters encourages suspicion and competion not coexistence, parochialism not pluralism.

* Interfaith dialogue is not about politics. Interfaith exchanges sometimes also become an excuse for advancing political agendas. Muslim spokesmen sometimes use events to push foreign policy positions on Iraq, Israel, Kashmir, and US influence abroad. When this happens, Islam is not engaged on its own terms, but rather becomes a platform for politics – as if all 1.2 billion Muslims share the same political views.

* Non-Muslims should not see Muslims as exotic. On the flip side, many Americans see Muslims as exotic “others,” and interfaith discussions often remain stunted at the superficial level: “Oh, you make hummus at home! And what is the cloth on your head called?” The religious discussion rarely goes beyond basic theological differences and simple cultural trappings.

* Religions should not be reduced to simple generalizations. Often, dialogue begins and ends with the point that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are all monotheistic faiths. There is little exploration of how these religions developed historically and culturally in distinct ways over centuries. Nor is there much exploration of how people of different faiths can learn from one another in the present. Non-Muslims approach these exchanges either with hostility to a “jihad religion” or with a tendency to gloss over points of controversy. As a result, religions are boiled down to simplistic ideas, without consideration of the diversity of interpretation within each religious tradition. Presenters often make statements such as, “X is true Islam, but Y is not.” These simplifications suppress the vital but muted debate that has taken place historically and is currently taking place beneath the surface in Muslim communities. Understanding of one’s religion and place in the world can only take place in a context of open discussion, within one’s own community and in dialogue with other communities.

* Interfaith dialogue is an opportunity. In our free and open society, religious groups can share their solutions not only for reconciling tradition and modernity, but also for the pressing problems of the day. As new comers to America, Muslim immigrants, through interfaith dialogue, can take the opportunity to learn about how other religious communities have come to terms with their traditions within the American experience. But if Muslims and non-Muslims engage in circuitous interfaith encounters, then they cheat themselves, and miss out on the wonderfully diverse experience of engaging peoples of all faiths in 21st century America.

The Five Pillars of Interfaith Dialogue

Our approach to interfaith dialogue rests on five pillars:

  1. Islam is a dynamic civilization with a rich history. Islam is not a collection of religious tenets that exist in a vacuum. The development of Islam occurs in historical context. Islam, like all religions, has faced challenges in adjusting to modernity and encountering other religions. Islam is a dynamic civilization that is today in the process of reconciling itself with the challenges of modernity in communities throughout the world.
  2. Islam is not monolithic. Muslims have a wide diversity of religious and political views. Just as Christians and Jews are not monolithic in their practices and politics, so too are Muslims diverse. For instance, there is the massive ethnic and religious diversity within Islam, ranging from the skeptics to fundamentalist, Sunnis to Shi’is, Arabs to Indonesians – all of whom represent and particpate in one way or another the diversity that is Islam.
  3. Break the silence. We should feel comfortable discussing hot-button cultural and political matters. Muslims can achieve genuine dialogue with others if we generate open dialogue amongst ourselves. We should empower everyone in our community to not feel discouraged or intimated about speaking their minds. This involves encouraging people to ask difficult questions in a friendly manner and to get to the heart of each other’s concerns.
  4. Self-criticism is a sign of strength. American Muslims can take the lead in working for a brighter future for the Muslim world. Rather than shy away from shortcomings, we should feel free to address the massive problems facing the Muslim world: the threat posed by radicals who advocate violence and religious supremacy based upon their interpration of religious texts; the social status of women; the treatment of minorities; and the lack of civil society, democracy, and economic development.
  5. Reach out beyond Jews and Christians. We should be careful not to limit dialogue to Christianity and Judaism. Given Islam’s troubled history with polytheistic and post-Muhammad faiths, we must begin to engage the many other religions that are blossoming in America alongside us: Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, Baha’i, etc. If we can establish constructive dialogue with these groups, we will be opening up a new chapter in Muslim interfaith dialogue.

Getting Started

There are several steps that you can take to begin organizing and participating in interfaith dialogue events.

* Find a dialogue partner. Contact leaders or active members of your local churches, synagogues, Hindu temples, or other religious or interfaith organizations and simply ask if they would be interested in participating in an interfaith dailogue. It could also be helpful to speak with other members of your local Muslim community beforehand to get a sense of how many people might be interested in attending an interfaith dialogue event.

* Start small. Large-scale events, though desirable, are extremely difficult to organize. It takes experience with planning and attending small-scale events (e.g. holiday celebration, interfaith meal, joint community service activity) to successfully organize an event that includes hundreds of participants. Smaller-scale events that involve no more than a couple-dozen participants offer the advantage of intimacy, which can better create an atmosphere of sharing and openness.

* Forge a bond at the leadership level. Even if you do not plan to organize an interfaith event for a while, it is very important to establish and maintain a dialogue with leaders of the communities that you hope to engage. If leaders develop a relationship, then it is much easier for community members to follow suit.

* Talk ahead of time. Before participating in an event, meet in advance with non-Muslim leaders to discuss concerns your community members may have with interfaith dialogue. Openness ahead of time will resolve tensions that may exist amongst participants.

* Seek ways to continue to build dialogue. Relationships often fade if they are not maintained. Once an event is planned, you should try to quickly plan future events with the same group and extend the dialogue to other related groups.

Suggested Activities

Working within the framework of the our 5 five pillars of Muslim interfaith dialogue, we propose a set of activities and suggested readings that can be used for conducting interfaith events.

Islam is a dynamic civilization with a rich history:

¨ To demonstrate the historical evolution of Islam to event participants, you should craft short lessons, powerpoint presentations, or handouts on specific periods and centers of Islam:

  • Mecca and Medina during the life of the Prophet Muhammad
  • Umayyad Damascus
  • Abbasid Baghdad
  • Fatimid Cairo
  • Umayyad Spain
  • Suleiman the Great in Istanbul
  • Ottoman Empire

¨ When discussing Muslim life today, it is important to emphasize the recent historical and political context of extremism within Islam in contrast to the long history of Muslim thought and culture. Muslim history is filled with episodes of cultural flowering, geographical and demographic expansions, ups and downs.

¨ To illustrate: Trace a Muslim concept through its history of interpretations and understandings; e.g. Jihad (spirtual struggle, defensive war, holy war), Amr bi-l-ma’ruf wa-l-nahi ‘an al-munkar (commanding the right and forbidding the wrong), etc.

Islam is not monolithic:

¨ Prepare slide shows or powerpoint presentation that exhibit the many “faces of Islam” with its multiple ethnicities and nationalities. These presentations should also include current demographic statistics.

¨ Read excerpts from different strands of Muslim thought (e.g. Sunni, Shi’i, Sufi). These readings should serve as a starting point for discussing similarities and differences between groups such as Sufis, Sunnis, Shi’is, and Isma’ilis.

¨ Ask each event participant to write down and share five examples of ways “you think you are different from everyone else in the room”-in other words, “What makes your experience unique?” As participants describe their uniqueness, discussion leaders should also encourage people to discuss how others can relate to these unique qualities.

¨ Discuss the effects of national identity and local culture on the way Islam is understood and practiced. Compare and contrast the experiences of American, Saudi, Iraqi, Egyptian, Indonesian, Pakistani, and/or Nigerian Muslims.

Breaking the silence:

¨ Ask each event participant to list 10 questions that “you want to know the answers to about your own religion and the religions of your fellow participants.” Moderators will then present and discuss these questions with the group.

¨ Ask each event participant to list 5 issues that “you feel get too much attention in your religious community and 5 issues that get too little attention.” Moderators will then present and discuss these questions with the group.

Self-criticism is a sign of strength:

¨ Distribute handouts that profile courageous social activists who are taking the lead in the Muslim world to speak out on issues of human rights, minority rights, civil liberties, and/or women’s rights.

¨ Ask each event participants to write down 5 things that “you are most proud of in Islam and 5 things that you are least proud of regarding Muslim practice.” Moderators will then present and discuss participant responses. Ask members of other religious groups present to do the same with their religion.

Reaching out beyond Jews and Christians:

¨ Invite local Hindus and Baha’is to talk about their faiths and attend their cultural/religious events.

¨ Ask to be included on the mailing list of these communities to get a better feel for their programs and for opportunities to join together.

¨ Consider having interfaith panel discussions on issues that are not so religiously charged, e.g.: city council elections, faith-based funding, affirmative action, social service funding, local environmental concerns, recycling.