By Aziz Junejo
On a recent drive to a mall, I was abruptly reminded that Islamophobia still exists.
Eleven years after 9/11, there are still folks who are either unfamiliar with Islam or who believe the many misrepresentations about it, yet I remain optimistic our nation will overcome this.
Based on the feedback and questions I get from my public speeches about Islam, a lot of people who fear Muslims seem to know very little, if anything, about Islam.
Many people have reacted with fear to anything related to Islam, without ever having had a conversation or interacted with an American Muslim.
Today, Muslim women in scarves are the targets of this xenophobia.
On that drive to the mall, I had two young Muslim girls with me, both wearing headscarves, when a man pulled up on their side of our car and started pointing, yelling expletives and then spitting on their window.
The children were visibly shaken and looked away, but I did not confront the person.
I waited until he drove forward, then took his license number and a description of his car and reported the incident to the King County sheriff and to CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations).
They confirmed this was one of many similar incidents reported recently and that it would be investigated.
When the officer asked if I wanted to press charges against the driver I said no, but I did ask that police please speak to the driver in the hope it would raise his awareness about how hurtful and offensive his actions were. I later learned that police did do that.
I wish my fellow Americans could understand our beliefs are much more similar to theirs than different — that our common values lend themselves to all of us working together for issues like peace, equality, serving the poor and pursuing justice.
According to a 2010 Time magazine poll, 62 percent of Americans say they have never met a Muslim. We are good citizens, proven to be good neighbors and are involved in community organizations.
I see American Muslims as hard workers, increasingly well-educated and affluent, striving to assimilate with non-Muslims friends and neighbors, and celebrating American values.
A 2010 report by the Rand Corp. found that “a mistrust of American Muslims by other Americans seems misplaced.” It’s because mistrust exists that we must work to further an understanding about Muslims and combat bigotry.
Folks need to know American Muslims care about our country’s safety and longevity. We contribute to society, proudly serve in our armed forces and love our families.
I am always encouraged by the fruits of our interfaith efforts.
Consider, for example, the Jewish community that recently opened its doors to members of a nearby mosque that could not accommodate its growing Muslim population. That happened when Rabbi Michael Holzman of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation welcomed the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, offering to let them pray in the synagogue on Fridays.
Today, cooperation between Jews and Muslims like this could only happen in America. But this collaboration must move beyond the doors of our synagogues, mosques and churches and into the general public.
Muslims have become more proactive, not reactive, reflecting an awareness that showing patience and kindness to fellow citizens can make a world of difference in fostering an understanding about the true character of Islam.
American Muslims dedicated themselves to interfaith work pre- and post-9/11, and now, more than ever, must focus more on the hearts and minds of every American.
America remains the greatest melting pot of cultures in the world and my hope is that Americans who are not Muslim will come to view Americans who are Muslim not as a threat, and not with disrespect, but as peaceful and contributing members of our nation.
Aziz Junejo is host of “Focus on Islam,” a weekly cable-television show, and a frequent speaker on Islam. Readers may send feedback to email@example.com