By Mia Rupani, Point Park News Service:
Kelcey Sharkas feels safe identifying as a Muslim in Pittsburgh, but says she is still cautious in light of recent events that are generating both positive and negative reactions toward her religious community. Sharkas serves as director of programming for the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh (ICP) in Oakland. The center is calling last year’s Thanksgiving Day shooting of a taxi driver in Hazelwood a hate crime.
“After the Thanksgiving Day shooting, so many people came out who are non-Muslim to show support and sympathy towards the victim and the Muslim community in general,” Sharkas said. “But hearing about mosques being burned down…and people threatening to remove all Muslims from America would make any Muslim second-guess their security.”
According to the number of anti-Islamic crimes reported to the FBI, Islamophobia is on the rise in America and has been since Sept. 11, 2001.
“The media rhetoric has seemed to remain the same and perhaps even increased in the last year to make Muslims seem like the enemy, and Islam as the problem,” Sharkas said. “If a large majority of American citizens have not met a Muslim, or have not read the Quran for themselves, it would be understandable for them to feel hatred or anger towards the Muslim community.”
The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program collects and publishes data on crimes motivated by racial, religious, disability and sexual orientation bias. In 2001, anti-Islamic crimes grew exponentially by 1,600 percent compared to the number of incidents in 2000.
In the most recent statistics provided by the FBI, anti-Islamic crimes made up 13 percent of religiously-motivated attacks in 2013, the second most of any religious group. Attacks against Jewish people made up 60 percent.
Nevertheless, Sharkas tries to remain positive about this situation. She credits the current generation with actively trying to educate themselves about the Islam faith.
“Many more individuals that I encounter seem to believe that the media is misrepresenting the faith, and they try to get to an understanding for themselves,” Sharkas said.
Safdar Khwaja, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), shares similar views with Sharkas on the public’s understanding of Muslims. CAIR is a Muslim advocacy group with a mission to enhance the understanding of Islam, protect civil liberties, and create alliances that promote mutual understandings and justice.
“The majority of the public is starting to have a better understanding of what Muslims stand for. Simultaneously, there is a lot of fear being generated and there are some hate groups that are funded and they create a lot of noise,” Khwaja said. “So those who do not have time to study and investigate are influenced by this hate propaganda.”
Khwaja believes that the best way to fight Islamophobia is with education and a mutual understanding.
“The best step is to bring people to the floor and create some kind of forum where these people get a chance to explain how things are and what they feel,” Khwaja said. “I believe the large majority of Americans are open-minded people and they are open to learning and understanding. Education is very important. We can solve a lot of our problems with knowledge.”
Khwaja added that he understands there are violent groups who claim to follow the laws of Islam, and that impressionable people see these acts and equate all Muslims with violence and terrorism.
“Muslims don’t want someone to go to the dark side and commit these terroristic attacks,” Khwaja said. “Education and awareness of the fundamentals of Islam is very important because fear does not serve the country well.”
According to Khwaja, CAIR has documented nearly 40 hate-fueled incidents committed against Muslims since the Nov. 13, 2015, Paris attacks.
“There are people showing up with machine guns in front of mosques and the intimidation factor is very scary. There have also been Muslims that have had their headscarves pulled off…and rocks have been thrown at mosques,” Khwaja said. “We cannot have our population turning against each other.”
In response to the Thanksgiving Day shooting of the taxi driver, Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay met with the ICP. The meeting was followed by a press conference.
In an effort to help make the Muslim community in Pittsburgh feel more protected in the city, McLay agreed to actively prosecute hate crimes, develop cultural competency training for the police bureau, improve relationships between the police bureau officials and Muslim community leaders, hire and maintain a diverse police force, and communicate with the ICP to help mediate issues of concern with the Muslim community.
According to Sharkas, the ICP is a “diverse center that tries to cater to the entire community’s needs in the best possible way.”
The ICP currently runs a number of services, including a monthly food bank, Arabic and English language courses, outreach programs, an Islam 101 course, Sunday school and refugee services. The majority of events held at the ICP are open to both Muslims and non-Muslims.
The ICP continues to be an active participant in helping all refugee families who come to Pittsburgh, Sharkas said.
“The refugees that we help and see grow here are amazing people,” Sharkas said. “These are hard-working individuals who pay taxes, work hard, long hours to support themselves, and truly feel grateful for being given this second chance to live a fulfilling life.”