Eye on the United States

An Ironic Message of Tolerance

Muslims in the United States
Rawia Ismail (R) and her family in Toledo, OH. Ismail, a teacher in the public schools, features in the U.S. Dept. of State's new initiative to depict the United States as a nice place for Muslims to live (Photo: McCann-Erickson/U.S. Dept. of State). 

The U.S. Embassy recently launched a series of minifilms and print ads introducing the life of Muslim families in the United States. Indonesia was honored to be the first to be included in the series because it is the biggest Muslim country in the world, according to U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Ralph Boyce.

Of course, it was not stated that the series was launched in Indonesia because of the recent bombing in Bali. Also not mentioned was another possible reason: the harsh reaction from almost all Muslim organizations, big and small in terms of their members, to Indonesia’s policy against terrorism and the arrest of Abu Bakar Bashir [the leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, the Asian equivalent of Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda terror network] in particular, which they widely perceived as done under U.S. pressure.

A version of the ads in the print media features the life of Abdul-Raouf-Hammuda and his family. Hammuda was born and raised in Tripoli, Libya, before he went to study in the United States. He is now a successful businessman and owner of a bakery, Tiger Lebanese. Seventy-five percent of his customers are non-Muslims. The ad implied that religious tolerance was
the value of his customers; they do not care what Hammuda’s religion is. The message of religious tolerance comes through more explicitly afterward.

Hammuda says he is one of the founders of the Toledo Islamic Academy, which started with only 50 students and now runs pre-elementary as well as high schools. According to Hammuda, the United States is the country of hope and equality. People like him are free to practice their religion.

I assume that the aim of the mini-films and print ads is the same: that religious freedom is guaranteed in the United States and that Muslim families can live their life happily as Muslims. Indonesian Muslims would surely be glad to read and watch such features, to learn that Islam also exists in the United States, which is often perceived as a large Christian country hostile to Islam. But what impact could this kind of message of tolerance have on Indonesian Muslims?

According to Stanley Harsha, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, the embassy received quite a number of responses to the ads from “common people,” such as taxi drivers or petty traders. These people said that they were glad to get to know the life of their fellow Muslims in the United States. Some of them previously had no idea that there were Muslims in the land of Uncle Sam.

Maybe there were also a few such ignorant people among those who were prepared to join plans of “sweeping” or attacking Americans here last year. But that “sweeping” was condemned and rejected by mainstream Muslim organizations, such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. “Sweeping” against Americans was done by those who could not differentiate between the American people and the U.S. government. American citizens traveling in Solo and Yogyakarta were sought out because of what their government has done in
the past.

I am afraid that even though Indonesian Muslim radicals already know by now that fellow Muslims live in America, they will continue to threaten American tourists as long as U.S. government policy is considered harmful to Islamic interests—no matter how vague this notion of “Islamic interests.”

That the series of ads would bring a better understanding of Americans to the Indonesian Muslim community is obvious. However, I would suggest that the same project be launched in America. According to Boyce, there are now 7 million Muslims, 1,200 mosques, and 400 Islamic schools in the United States. But what about subjective knowledge and the perception of most people in the United States of Islam and its followers? Is it adequate and proportional enough? Do Americans realize that Muslims—people like Hammuda and his family—are their immediate neighbors instead of “alien and distant” people?

It is widely known that the knowledge Westerners and Americans have about Islam is very minimal. After Sept. 11, there was growing interest in Islam. Nonetheless, the newly acquired information about Islam does not guarantee a better understanding of it, especially if it is acquired through people such as televangelist Jerry Falwell (who said, “the Prophet Muhammad was a terrorist”) or viewed through a previous stereotyped mind-set.

Tempo magazine reported a story on Indonesian students in the United States who received “extra attention” from the people in their neighborhood not long after the U.S. government named Jemaah Islamiyah as a terrorist group residing in Indonesia. The students’ experience was better than that of a number of Arabs who were cursed and their houses vandalized after Sept. 11.

A couple of years ago, veteran journalist Peter Arnett reported in the American Journalism Review a related phenomenon. He found that space for foreign news in U.S. newspapers was decreasing and in some papers had even been terminated. Small and very local events prevailed. Hence, many international news agencies went bankrupt. Foreign news is the “window” through which Americans get connected to the outside world. The smaller the window, the more isolated Americans become. Therefore, Americans also need to watch the minifilms and print ads about American Muslim families, which should include perhaps a series on Indonesian Muslim families as well.

Too many  pictures produced by the Western and, in particular, the U.S. media depict Muslims as radicals. Mainstream Islam in Indonesia is against terrorism and is compatible with democracy. This is what Americans really need to know.

The author is a political analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta and WPR’s Indonesia correspondent.