Bridge Initiative Aims To Promote Dialogue

As anti-Muslim rhetoric infiltrates the U.S. 2016 presidential stage and hate crimes against Muslims rise, Georgetown’s Bridge Initiative — a multi-year research project — has dedicated itself to expanding Muslim-Christian relations and peace.

The research project, led by Director John Esposito and Assistant Director Engy Abdelkar and based in Georgetown’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, aims to make academic studies on Islamophobia accessible to the public while actively strengthening bridges of understanding between the Muslim world and the West.

By gathering data on support for presidential candidate Donald Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration and highlighting the presidential candidates’ relations to Islamophobia, Bridge is bringing renewed attention to the misunderstanding and issues surrounding views on Muslims in America and other Western countries.

Esposito said the Bridge Initiative also provides alternative narratives through its website to shed light on the positive contributions the majority of Muslims contribute to society at large and to Western society in particular.

Abdelkader said she attributes rising instances of hate crimes against Muslims to the rhetoric of candidates who increasingly employ language to express prejudice against the religious minority.

“Many of the GOP voters who are engaged in the primary election actually support Trump’s views on his public ban for Muslim immigration, so that’s cause for alarm, and I think perhaps even more interesting, though, is perhaps upwards of 30 percent of Democratic voters … actually share that viewpoint as well,” Abdelkader said.

Abdelkader said she understands that freedom of speech is a crucial value of the United States but emphasized how Islamophobic rhetoric serves as a catalyst for violent manifestations of prejudice in society.

“We place a lot of value as Americans on freedom of speech,” Abdelkader said. “That needs to be tempered with responsibility and understanding that when you are making bigoted comments that target a minority faith community in your country, that has very real implications and oftentimes those implications are violent.”

Abdelkader noted a manifestation of the trauma inflicted on Muslims because of such political sentiments that already occurred in Dallas, Texas, on Dec. 8, when a Muslim mother returned home to find her 8-year-old daughter packing up her toys and toothbrush in fearful anticipation of deportation after Trump called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States.

He emphasized the role terrorist attacks contribute to Islamophobia even though, in Western countries, violence committed by non-Muslims poses a greater security threat. Yet groups like the Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda continue to be subjected to more media scrutiny despite causing more Muslim deaths than non-Muslim deaths.

“Non-Muslim extremists were responsible for more deaths than those who self-identified as Muslims,” Abdelkader said. “That seems weird, and that’s because of the depictions that we are constantly digesting from news media.”

Abedelkader noticed the disparity in media coverage between the bombings in Brussels, Belgium on March 22 and the attacks three days earlier in Istanbul, Turkey. Both attacks were attributed to the Islamic State group, and both attacks resulted in a number of civilian deaths; nonetheless, Belgium received more media coverage than Turkey, a a country that has a Muslim majority.

“There is never any justification; there is never any excuse for violence or political violence but by the same token it’s important to not generalize those egregious acts, the atrocities committed by a few, to the global Muslim community or to American Muslims here in the U.S.,” Abdelkader said.

Esposito said he hopes to see Islamophobia decline in the future through Bridge’s increased influence. He said the site has become so visible both in terms of the number of people who visit and in terms of the number of people who take what they have written on the site and share it on social media.

“We’re going from zero at times to hundreds of thousands to occasionally one or two million within a period of time people accessing our site and or what we write,” Esposito said.

According to Abdelkader, as Bridge continues its work and research, Islamophobia and hate crimes toward Muslims can only be mitigated through united action and collective will.

“This has to be done in a way that Muslims and non-Muslims are working together. It’s our responsibility as a society much in the same way that we reject racism, or we reject anti-Semitism we do so as a society,” Abdelkader said. “We’re situated in the perfect context here at Georgetown University. The students that are here are literally going to be the leaders [of the nation] in a variety of ways and they are going to be part of the solution.”

Benjamin Balough (COL ’17), a convert to Islam from Christianity, acknowledged the significant strides made by Bridge to address stigmatization against Muslims, but he said he believes Islamophobia is partially motivated by racism fueled by misunderstanding.

“I feel, as a white convert, that I avoid many of the preconceptions imposed on most Muslims,” Balough wrote in an email to The Hoya. “My Christian friends see me and, because of my race, are able to extract the positive, religious connotations of Islam — modesty, kindness, prayer.”

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