Many young Muslims have grown up knowing only hostility between Islam and the West. It seems to them as though Islam and Muslims are blamed for the ills of the whole world. Since the infamous attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, in which so many lives were lost so senselessly, Islam and the West look upon each other with suspicious eyes. Subsequent attacks on civilians in London, Madrid, Bali, and elsewhere have caused further tension and misunderstanding between Islam and those who know nothing of its message. In many countries, Muslims are now looked upon with fear and suspicion, as though they are not really a part of the communities in which they live. The veil, far from being the beautiful garment of modesty and piety as Muslims see it, is regarded as a symbol of some strange religion. Young Muslim men wearing a beard are seen as fanatics or extremists, and are stopped and searched on the street as possible terrorists. Even politicians now speak about Islam and Muslims as though they are a hidden enemy within the country, who have to be watched very carefully.
On the other hand, what young Muslims see in the news is also very disturbing. The tragedy being played out before all of our eyes in Iraq and Afghanistan, ever since the United States and its allies invaded those countries, and the daily oppression of ordinary men, women, and children in Palestine, leave many young Muslims wondering what it is that so many people have against Islam. The so-called War on Terror has been linked very clearly to Islam. Does the world really hate Islam, they ask.
It is a simple fact that most people who are not Muslim do not have much experience of Islam. How could they? The only information they get about Islam and Muslims is what they see on the television, news, or in the newspaper. Newspapers, though, don't run headlines about people trying to be good. The news carries stories about explosions and wars and violence. A Muslim grandmother praying five times a day and teaching her grandchildren to recite the Qur'an does not make the news. A group of Muslim youths who pray together in the mosque and then play football together in the street is not what headlines are made of, is it?
Islam is simply beyond the experience of most people who are not Muslim. If you live in a Muslim country, you will hear the Call to Prayer and you will see people praying in the street and reciting the Qur'an on the bus. It is as natural as breathing. If you live in a country that isn't Muslim, you will not only not see these things, but they would seem very strange to you if you did. In a Muslim country, you grow up hearing the name of Allah all the time. In a Muslim home, you grow up in the same way. In a non-Muslim environment, though, this just isn't the case.
Before the horrible episode of those cartoons in Denmark, which upset Muslims so much because of the way they spoke about our beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), the Danish Queen made a remark that summed up much of the problem. Referring to devout Muslims, she talked about "those people for whom religion is everything." Now, to us as Muslims, religion is everything, and it is not strange to say so. People who aren't Muslim, though, just don't see it that way, and that is where the problem starts. They don't have friends who pray openly and talk about the Creator as the center of their lives. It's not that people hate Islam, but it's really that they don't know enough about Islam and they are being fed with misinformation and wrong stories about Islam and Muslims all the time.
Politicians, though, are very clever. If there is a problem in a country, it is far easier to find a reason for the problem and point a finger at who is to blame than to admit that you don't know how to solve it. Unfortunately, this is what has happened recently with Islam and Muslims. To fight a "War on Terror" you need to have an enemy. You can't fight a war against no one. Even though it has been proved beyond a doubt that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that people knew this, the country was still attacked, with tragic consequences. If bombs go off in the London Underground or in beach resorts, killing innocent people, people want the culprits to be caught. They want someone to blame and they want someone to be punished.
We find that throughout a country's history, different groups are blamed for that country's problems. When IRA violence was at its height in Northern Ireland, Irish Catholics were looked upon with suspicion, as sympathizers towards the bombers. When unemployment gets high in a country, people look to immigrants from abroad to blame for the lack of jobs.
It is natural, then, for people to be easily led and to be fed targets whom they can blame. It is wrong but natural. If a finger can be pointed at someone else, then people feel they know where the danger lies. Not knowing who the terrorists are is very frightening indeed.
Another very sinister fact is that there are some groups in the world who do not want Islam to prosper, and they do everything they can to feed the media with misinformation to make Islam and Muslims seem bad.
As for ordinary people, though, they don't hate Islam. They just don't know anything about it. How many young Muslims know much about Buddhists, for example? How many know anything at all about people living in the Pacific Islands? Almost none, we might say, because it is outside our experience. The challenge for all Muslims, then, is to let people know about Islam. How to do this is a problem. It is difficult to talk to people when they are afraid of you or think you are odd. In the present climate of mistrust, just seeing a girl wearing hijab is often enough to make someone turn away in disgust or fear. The very mention of the word Islam is enough to cause suspicion, even among people who are educated. The media has a lot to answer for.
I remember just after the 9/11 attacks, one of the popular newspapers in the UK carried a large headline which said "ISLAM IS NOT THE RELIGION OF EVIL." Now, up until that time no one had suggested that it was, but running such a headline put the idea into people's minds. What we, as Muslims, have to do is to change people's ideas. We start first of all with our friends in school and college and at work. It's possible to let people see that we pray and take our religion very seriously, and still laugh and joke and be seen as quite normal.
Huddling into small groups and having nothing to do with non-Muslims is not the answer. We need to be proud of who we are and what we believe and to be very much a part of the communities where we live. If our school is made up mostly of non-Muslims, we should respect that, but let them see what we believe, also. If our workmates drink alcohol and go to the pub on a Friday night, we needn't look down our noses at them, but we can let it be known in a very simple and gentle way that Muslims just don't do that. We don't have to compromise what we believe here, as though it isn't important, but there are ways we can do it which will make our point without giving offense.
Who knows, the way we talk about Islam in daily life might be just what is needed to correct the wrong ideas people have. If we play in a Muslim youth football team, for example, we can show the other teams who are not Muslim that our soccer skills don't require us to swear or to drink. The very way we behave on and off the pitch should be our own da`wah, our own way of calling others to Islam. Sometimes, we are our own worst enemies because we fail to speak up or to give the good example that others are expecting of us.
In all things, Muslims say "al-hamdu lillah." If people misunderstand us at the present time, then this is just an opportunity for us to talk about Islam. By showing the people around us that Islam is not violent or extreme, but that it is very beautiful and very sweet, we can change people's minds and win their hearts for Allah. No, people don't hate Islam, they just have never met any good Muslims. Let us be the first ones they meet!