The UNLV Boyd School of Law hosted a discussion about the history of Islam in America and the discrimination of Muslims with former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday.
The panel hosted Leila Fadel of NPR along with several Muslim scholars, journalists, lawyers and students for the basis of bringing further understanding and knowledge of Muslims in the U.S. and their history within the country.
“We live in a divisive time, and we need to combat bigotry, misunderstanding and hate,” Reid said. “Islamophobia is on the rise. This is an ongoing struggle, we can find ways to talk to another and understand one another.”
According to the Pew Research Center, anti-Muslim hate crimes have been surging in recent years, more than post 9/11 numbers. The panel attributes this to racism and misconceptions about their faith, including the mischaracterization of Sharia law as an oppressive system of governance.
Santa Clara University professor Farid Senzai spoke of the presence of Muslims in American history that is often unaddressed, as well as common demographic misconceptions. Of the 3.5 million Muslims that live in America, one-quarter of them are converts and of various races and nationalities.
“Many people assume Islam is a foreign religion, but it has been here since the founding of this country,” Senzai said. “At least 20 percent of all African slaves were Muslims from North Africa. They fought in the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson kept a copy of the Qu’ran in his home.”
Egyptian-American Rutgers University law professor Saher Aziz said that the instant backlash Muslims faced as a result of 9/11 completely changed her career trajectory.
“People wanted to punish someone, and find people who perpetrated attacks that looked like them,” Aziz said. “Things didn’t go back to normal like we thought they would.”
Aziz found that people associated the word terrorism with Muslim extremism, which is a stark contrast to the number of terror attacks committed by white supremacists since 2001. According to the Anti-Defamation League, more than 73 percent of terrorist attacks in the United States are committed by white men in the name of white nationalism and other far-right ideologies.
Mahir Hussein, president of UNLV’s Muslim Student Organization, spoke of the history of Islam and the bigotry he faced because of his religion and status as a first-generation Ethiopian-American.
“Hate of Islam comes from ignorance,” Hussein said. “As a first-gen student, I encounter other peers who don’t know about their own faith.”
UNLV law professor Michael Kagan, who is now the director of the school’s immigration clinic, says his experience of working with the clinic, as well as living in several Muslim-majority countries, helped him gain perspective for immigrant communities.
“The past few years working with the immigrant community, I often felt I have to stare at a level of cruelty and hatred I didn’t know I would see in my own country,” Kagan said. “Every society in the world has beauty in it, including ours. Every society has problems, including ours.”
Persecution of Muslims has been increasing in various parts of the world, including from both the United States and China, where over one million Uighur Muslims are put into reeducation camps.
Reid called out President Trump’s perceived hypocrisy of calling for upholding religious freedoms in a recent address to the United Nations despite instituting a travel ban on five Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa at the beginning of his presidency.
“When you don’t give religious freedoms to Muslims but you will to others, you have to ask are you committed to religious freedoms?” Reid said. “We have to be consistent.”