The note was taped to the door and penned in neat block letters. It began with a sentence handwritten larger than the rest: “Today I give thanks for all of you, you make me a better person.”
Found at the Islamic Center of the Northeast Valley in Scottsdale, Ariz., this Wednesday, the message went on to commend mosque members for their devotion to their faith, noting, “for you to have to explain or defend your faith on TV or to anyone is outrageous.”
“I am only one person — an American Christian,” the letter-writer said. “I feel the people making radical statements on TV and claim they are Christian have forgotten what their faith is all about!”
Just 25 minutes away from the mosque is the house of Imraan Siddiqi, the executive director of the Council on Islamic American Relations (CAIR) Arizona. Siddiqi frequents the Islamic Center of the Northeast Valley, and the message made him smile.
Since 9/11, the writer and activist has been documenting incidences of Islamophobia across the country. They reached a peak in 2010, he said, around the time it was announced that a Muslim center would be built near Ground Zero in New York City. It was then that he decided to get involved with CAIR, and to start blogging about shifting public perceptions of Muslim communities.
In the aftermath of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and growing Islamophobia following the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Siddiqi’s office has been working with other faith organizations to combat anti-Muslim sentiment. In Siddiqi’s view, support from other religious groups is not just the best way to counter Islamophobia — it may be the only way.
“CAIR is the largest Muslim advocacy group out of America,” Siddiqi said in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “But your voice is going to be much stronger when you have the backing of the interfaith community. It has to be a united effort.”
This effort — among Christian, Jewish and Sikh groups — is the other side of the story about the barrage of abuse and hostility confronting Muslim communities. Almost as quickly as those public figures wary of Islam have spoken out against it, so too have faith groups emerged to demonstrate solidarity on a local level.
After Arizona governor Doug Ducey joined the more than 20 state leaders expressing their refusal to accept Syrian refugees, CAIR Arizona joined dozens of faith groups in writing a letter denouncing the decision. It was signed by the United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, NefeshSoul Jewish Congregation, Orthodox Jewish Social Justice Movement and others.
The letter appealed to the value of compassion advocated across faiths:
It has been stated over 30 times in the Torah for Jews to remember the historical experience of being a stranger in another land…Christians hold strongly to the teachings in Matthew 25 that demonstrate God’s great concern and directives as to how we are to treat those in need in our midst. In the Muslim tradition, more than 100 verses in the Quran state that compensation is similar to action; those who feed others will be fed, those who shelter others will be sheltered, those who relieve others will be relieved.
On a national level, the same message is being espoused with a focus on American values and what it means to live by them. Seven hundred organizations took out a full-page ad in the New York Times this Thursday with a blunt question and assessment.
“Is this America?” the ad asks in bold-faced type atop the backdrop of an American flag at half-mast. “When has hate ever led to progress? Is this really what we want America to be? We are better than this.”
The ad names a number of groups as being targets of “a dangerous tide of hatred, violence and suspicion rising in America.” First on the list are Arab and Muslim Americans; the others are “women and the places we seek health care,” African Americans, immigrants and refugees and “people just going about their daily lives.”
The campaign, under the slogan “We Are Better Than This,” calls upon “our politicians, leaders and the media to stop the spread of hate and division. And we pledge to stand with any community that is targeted by hateful rhetoric and violence.” Among the groups that have signed onto the ad are the Muslim American Society, the Church World Service and the National Council of Jewish Women.
Siddiqi of CAIR Arizona shares this sentiment, knowing well the good that can come of interfaith dialogue. After a group of armed bikers showed up at a Phoenix mosque last May, shouting anti-Muslim invective, Siddiqi and other local religious leaders led an interfaith prayer vigil attended by hundreds of community members outside the same mosque.
The interfaith event became the model for responses to other anti-Muslim armed protests across the country this October.
And there are smaller demonstrations of solidarity, too, like the handwritten note at Siddiqi’s mosque or the $20 bill that was left at the Islamic Community Center of Atlanta this Tuesday.
“Hello, I’m a white Atheist woman, but I strongly believe that everyone has the right to practice their religion in a safe place no matter what their religion is,” read an accompanying note. “I’m sorry for any negativity you may have experienced because of ignorant fear-mongering. Where there’s hate there is a great amount of love and you are loved.”
These are the kinds of incidents that aren’t talked about much, Siddiqi said, though they are just as important.
“What you’re seeing on these hate sites are not indicative of larger society,” he said. “Most people understand that Muslims have been here for a very long time and they’re a part of the fabric of America.”
Alongside the increased reports of abuse — particularly aimed at women wearing hijabs — Siddiqi’s CAIR chapter has also received an outpouring of support from faith groups of all kinds.
He said: “That’s what people don’t know: that the calls of support and the notes of encouragement far outweigh the hate.”
The demonstrations of support are indeed numerous, surfacing in quick response to the growing spate of discriminatory incidents. After a Muslim woman was attacked in a Bloomington, Ind., cafe this October, women showed up to the establishment wearing scarves in defiance of hate. After a dozen armed protesters interrupted afternoon prayers at the Islamic School of Irving, Tex., late November, neighbors held a peaceful rally, holding flowers signifying peace.
And as mosque-goers at the Clear Lake Islamic Center in Webster, Tex., arrived for Friday prayers last week, two days after the San Bernardino shootings, they were greeted by members of the Unitarian Universalist churches who arrived to show that they had nothing to fear.
The person who left the note at Siddiqi’s mosque shared the same spirit of hope. Though the letter is signed, Siddiqi said the identity of the writer remains unknown.
“As far as ISIS — it is impossible for them to ever win, maybe my head, maybe my body — but they can NEVER take my soul,” the letter said. “I refuse to fear my fellow Americans…Please — stay strong — this will pass. The good always prevail!”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the mosque at which the note was found as the Islamic Center of the East Valley. In fact, the note was taped to the door of the Islamic Center of the Northeast Valley.
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