Responding to a dramatic rise in reported hate crimes against Muslims, national and local Islamic leaders on Thursday asked the Islamic community to step out and educate more Americans about their religion.
A report released last week by Human Rights Watch said 60 instances of hate crimes against Muslims in Chicago were reported during 2001, the majority occuring after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The New York-based advocacy group's study showed only 4 reported cases in the city for 2000.
Bashir Undi, educational programs director of the Institute of Islamic Information Education of Chicago, said the rising "lack of empathy and discrimination" toward Muslims is "due to ignorance."
"The average American has a poor sense of geography and foreign affairs," Undi said."Muslims are looked upon as a cultural group, and that is false. Islam is a religion, and we need to cooperate with [other religions], consumer advocates and government officials to communicate the correct message."
Undi's center, located at 4390 N. Elston Ave. has provided materials and outreach programs since 1985.
Safaa Zarzour, principal of Universal School in Bridgeview, agrees with Undi and said prejudice toward Muslims is also the result of misinformation.
"Only 15 percent of Muslims are Arabs," he said. "At the same time, some of us [Muslims] have become too concerned with developing our own lives. We [Muslims] need to let our neighbors know who we are."
Zarzour is working with other local leaders to establish a Chicago branch of the Council for American Islamic Relations. Known as CAIR, the nonprofit organization began in 1994 to promote positive images of Muslims in the United States.
Hodan Hassan, spokesperson for CAIR headquarters in Washington D.C., said the organization launched a new project this September to provide more libraries with materials on Islam.
"With the recent attention, . . . we think it's necessary to provide additional information on Islam," Hassan said. "Through education we can combat ignorance, and it's important to break stereotypes by highlighting our religion."
"Part of our responsibility is to provide focused, balanced and accurate information," Zarzour said. "By reaching out to the mainstream, we are also combating those who are trying to stereotype Islam."
Both Undi and Zarzour said some Muslims in America feel victimized by profiling, and many have become cautious about speaking out.
"We have a responsibility to speak out against injustice, and we should not be silent," Zarzour said. "People should realize that [by speaking out] we're not standing in the way of combating terrorism, and we're not being disloyal."
"If we practice Islam correctly, " Undi said, " we can support fair government and resist the negative aspects in society. Islam is about living a morally structured lifestyle."