In response to hate rallies, an influx of refugees, and the Paris terror attacks in November 2015, key members of Seattle’s Muslim community are receiving training on how to effectively communicate Muslim issues to lawmakers and the media.
It’s a push by the Council of American-Islamic Relations—Washington State (CAIR-WA) to tell stories in a compelling way and show new perspectives from the Muslim community.
“It’s important to build a wider perspective, mobilize the community, find and train people to speak out on [the] radio,” said Arsalan Bukhari, CAIR-WA’s executive director. “It’s important to get the Muslim community in the media and public view too.”
With the large number of refugees seeking asylum in the United States, some officials have exercised caution and have taken measures to prevent Muslim refugees from settling in certain states. This has left the public uncertain about the number of Muslims coming in, which was only exacerbated from events in Paris.
Washington State Rep. Jay Rodne, R-Snoqualmie, expressed this sense of fear towards Muslim refugees in comments made on his Facebook page in November, which have since been removed. However, Rodne’s comments sparked debates among community members and even prompted the Seattle Times to run a story dedicated to fact checking his claims.
Hina Shakil, a CAIR-WA workshop participant from Snoqualmie, voiced her concern about Rodne’s comments.
“When politicians, like Rep. Jay Rodne, publicly attack American Muslims they’re really attacking my kids and my family,” Shakil said. “As a mother, I worry for my children and their future. I wonder about the kind of future that my children are going to be able to have in this country.”
“I would love to live in the same Snoqualmie, in the same nurturing environment for my kids. I want them to grow up as fully American and practicing Muslims,” wrote Shakil in an e-mail.
Earlier this year, CAIR-WA held a training in Snoqualmie in order to counter remarks like Rodne’s. CAIR-WA’s new media and outreach training workshops teach Muslims how to connect and voice their concerns to media outlets and lawmakers. Bukhari stressed the need for these workshops more than ever in response to recent situations, with the goal of helping ease tensions about Islam.
“We have been working to get local Muslim families and children to use their voices to educate the public about our communities’ lives, contributions, hopes and dreams,” Bukhari said.
First introduced in 2015, CAIR-WA now holds four workshops per month with approximately 20 to 30 people each session. In total they have trained between about 200 people.
About 20 participants are now equipped to attend meetings with lawmakers to communicate Muslim issues and policy effectively, according to Bukhari. Within the next few months, CAIR-WA hopes to prepare 15 more, including middle and high school students, mothers, and grandparents.
Ather Haleem, a Muslim American and software engineer at Microsoft, recently attended a CAIR-WA media/speaker training workshop. He reflected on the backlash towards Muslims in response to the Paris attacks, especially from government leaders.
“When anti-Muslim hate and conspiracy theories are repeated by elected leaders, they create an atmosphere that fosters bullying, discrimination, and often violent hate crimes against American Muslim families like mine,” Haleem said.
A wide body of research shows that when religiously, ethnically, or racially loaded language is misrepresented in news and public commentary it can have serious negative effects on public opinion. Reports by the University of Hawai‘i, University of Exeter, and National Hispanic Media Coalition indicate that media content can have a direct effect on hate and prejudice against Muslims and members of other minority groups.
For Shakil and Haleem, the workshops gave them the training they needed to reach out to media outlets to add their views to the public discourse. Shakil was a guest on a local radio morning show and Haleem has conveyed his perspectives to the Seattle Times editorial board.
In a typical workshop, participants sit together in a circle and do extensive introductions to allow people to get to know one another on a personal level, Bukhari said. In addition to sharing basic information, the participants discuss their greatest hopes and concerns for their community and how they feel they can make an impact when talking with media and lawmakers.
The workshop includes instruction on how to find your lawmakers and how to request and hold a meeting with them. The group also talks about how to write a letter to an editor and how to focus the content to grab the reader’s attention. Finally, the group discusses how to talk to reporters and answer their questions.
The goal of the workshop is to help participants leave with a product to disseminate—whether it be a press release, letter to the editor, or e-mail introduction to a reporter.
“American Muslims deserve the same opportunities as all Americans, to build better futures for our families and children,” Shakil said. “We are all U.S. citizens, proud Americans. We believe in America.”