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Local Muslims: Reports on ISIS Contribute to Misunderstandings about Islam

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Ann-Elise Henzl
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Students at Salam School in Milwaukee (from left): Sana Hamdan, Wasef Mahmoud, Ufaira Shaik, Yasmeen Atta, Nisren Atta, Mohammad Ismail, Moneeb Diab

Stories about ISIS remain in the news, including because a number of teens and adults in the U.S. have been arrested recently, for trying to join the extremist group.

WUWM spoke with local Muslims about the conversations those stories generate.

Teenagers told us the news reports contribute to prejudice and misunderstanding among people who don’t understand Islam.

Here are the comments of five 16-year-olds who attend the Islamic Society of Milwaukee’s Salam School, on the city’s south side.

Wasef Mahmoud: Of course it bothers me when people think that it represents my religion. To have anything that terrible and violent on my name, it honestly ruins the things that we stand for. Salam stands for peace and stands for submission to God, humility and being good -- and being good for humanity, for all. And then to have people that come and do these violent acts, it destroys everything we stand for and everything I live for.

MoneebDiab: We almost have them, and we convince them, and we show them and we provide good examples, but then when things like this happen and they read about it, we have to start over from scratch and it’ll be harder the second time.

UfairaShaik: There was this person that I’m very close to and she decides to wear the jilbab, which is basically the long dress, and she wears a head scarf too. And she was at college and somebody took a Snapchat picture of her and she didn’t notice, she was just walking by. And they put something on the thing, saying “ISIS is here,” and it was spread across the college. And she was really upset, because she’s not part of ISIS, she doesn’t associate with that type of thinking. And so things like this really create a bigger problem, and this creates a lot of misunderstanding and creates a lot of tension and problems too.

Wasef Mahmoud: Honestly, I really do feel the pressure because when I walk out of the house and I know I’m wearing the head scarf, I know people that automatically (say), “oh there goes the Muslim.” Once there was a time where I was going to the eye doctor, anything casual like that, I was with my mom and all the sudden this guy, he just approaches me and my mother, he just starts screaming at us about random things, like stuff like the ISIS and violence, and I was like, “what’s going on? I was just trying to go to the eye doctor!” From that moment (I realized that) as a Muslim, as a teenager, it doesn’t matter how young I am, I’m responsible for my faith and I have to be knowledgeable about what goes on. Maybe compared to an average teenager, I actually pay attention to the news, I go out of my way to find out what happens so I’ll be ready for whoever has to ask questions. It’s not that I don’t like questions, actually, I welcome it. I appreciate that people are trying to clear out the misconceptions.

Mohammad Ismail: We don’t want Muslims to feel like we’re outcasts of the society. We’re American Muslims, so if anyone has a question to ask us, we’ll answer it.

UfairaShaik: What I do, is when I see an article about ISIS or something, I immediately go to the comments and see what people have to say and it’s like technology warfare going on basically. Everybody’s really rude to each other about it and it’s kind of sad and depressing.

YasmeenAtta: I feel the same way, because once you see an article and once you do go through the comments, I’m literally shaking my head because I just see remarks of people who say things that I can’t believe they’re saying. Sometimes I have the urge to respond and sometimes I don’t, because I just know I’m going to get into an argument and it’s just going to get out of hand. But It just once again (shows the need) to educate yourself, educate yourself, and look up information and make sure that you’re getting it from a reliable source.

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Ann-Elise Henzl reports on how three local Muslim leaders respond, when the so-called Islamic State is in the news

WUWM also interviewed several adult Muslim leaders, to find out how they’re affected by news reports about ISIS.

AatifNowman is a Marquette University student, preparing for a career as a dentist. He’s also a leader of Marquette’s Muslim Student Association. Nowman says news reports about the radicalization of American teens and young adults affect him and fellow Muslim students:

There is a general emotional disturbance in the community when you see people who identify with the same faith as you going down the wrong path, taking the less wise choice. So it hurts. It hurts that fabric that we’re all a part of, that we identify with, as American Muslims.

Nowman says while some extremists claim to be Muslim, they ignore the peaceful interpretation of the faith. He believes there are other factors that separate most Muslims from those who join groups such as ISIS. Nowman says the recruits immerse themselves in videos and social media, designed to provoke an emotional and violent response. And they’re likely not to be part of a Muslim community.

When they go about joining these groups, it’s more often because they don’t feel accepted or they feel like they’re being isolated. So they seek identity somewhere else and that identity, unfortunately, is with these extremist groups.

So, organizations that want to dampen the lure focus on keeping children and young adults connected to the community. OthmanAtta is executive director of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee. He says it tucks into a variety of conversations, the importance of rejecting a radicalized ideology. On occasion, the society will send a direct message, such as an email, following a concerning news report:

For example, there was a story from Chicago of some kids that actually were going to go to Turkey. We basically commented on the article, saying how these individuals were misguided, how this is not only something that is going to be harmful for them physically, but this is also something that is really against the religion. What these people are doing is something that goes against all of the principles of the Muslim faith.

Atta says when it comes to potential ISIS recruits, his chief concern involves outsiders -- people not part of the mainstream Muslim community. They could be susceptible to propaganda. Atta says the Islamic society tells its young people to be prepared to respond.

Hey, if you have friends or you have someone out there that’s on social media -- Facebook or Snapchat or any other platform -- that are saying things that you feel to be troubling or extremist, let us know so we can try to get more information and maybe reach out to their parents.

Or, reach out to authorities.

The head of another local Muslim group prepares young people to respond to a different scenario. JananNajeeb is president of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition. She says it counsels teens and young adults who may face non-Muslims, who are upset when they hear about extremist atrocities.

More often what we encounter is how do we respond to people that ask us about ISIS. It’s more of an educational process for these young individuals to know, how do you respond to people that ask them and say “well, you know, does your religion condone this, or is something that is acceptable in your religion?

Najeeb says her organization helps young people form two responses. One is for those who think they know about Islam and don’t really want to learn. The other is for those genuinely curious.

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