While Atif Qarni was driving to an airport in Virginia on Friday to attend a conference about Islamophobia in Colonie Saturday morning, the death toll in the terror attacks in Paris was still rising. First it was reported in the twenties. Then 100. By Saturday, the official count was 129 with hundreds more wounded.
“Anytime there’s an attack, I pray for two things,” he said as the conference opened Saturday morning. “One, I say, ‘God, please take care of the families of the victims,’ and I pray for the victims. But the second thing, I’ll be honest with you, is ‘I hope to God it’s not a Muslim.’ ”
So far, the French government has blamed the attacks on the self-titled Islamic State, which has publicly taken credit for them.
For Qarni and others gathered for the inaugural conference “Contemporary Issues of Religion in America: Discussing, Dissecting and Destroying Islamophobia” hosted by Muslims of America Inc. at the Muslim Community Center of the Capital District on Saturday, the attacks were a pointed and painful example of the challenges facing the Muslim world.
Qarni, a teacher and former U.S. Marine Corps Reservist, said these attacks, from Sept. 11, 2001 to Friday in Paris, “have done a lot of damage to our community.”
“I’m hopeful that as we start this first annual Islamophobia conference that other communities throughout the United States will see that we need to come together and use this as a model to openly communicate and discuss these issues,” he said.
The conference brought together representatives of eight countries, as well as other speakers, to discuss topics like Islamophobia in education, Islamophobia in politics, the radicalization of Muslim youth, and the role of interfaith activism in combating Islamophobia.
With news still breaking about the attacks in Paris, the tragedy and the topic of terrorism in general was never far from the discussion. But the speakers, in opening the conference, painted a broad picture of discrimination that often includes much more subtle offenses.
Bineta Diop, who represented Senegal on the panel, talked about how she felt the need to remove her headscarf when first immigrating to the United States for fear of being judged. She said she knows many African Muslim women who do the same, “to blend in, as they say.”
Muhammad Matthew Gardner, director of public relations for The Muslims of America, spoke about the time he woke up to the sounds of gunshots in his Muslim community in Virginia. The next morning, they found 13 bullet holes in their roadside sign.
And Imraan Siddiqi, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Arizona, spoke about the depictions of Muslims in Bollywood films — usually as terrorists or buffoons, with the women’s scarves fetishized as symbols of oppression to be torn away by the male hero.
“Islamophobia covers a lot of ground,” he said. “It can be above the surface and it can be beneath the surface.”
When Eydid Ali, who represented Bangladesh on the panel, was young, he said he had a friend who would not allow him to come to his house. His parents did not like Muslims, he told Ali.
Ali spoke quickly and passionately when his turn came on the panel, baffled at the way all Muslims are often blamed when any one Muslim or group of Muslims commits an act of terror — but then, he would not even call them Muslims.
“If you have the power of killing somebody, you are not Muslim to me,” he said. “I do not believe that you are Muslim. Because in our faith, we do not kill people. We believe in peace.”
The discussions continued throughout the morning and afternoon on Saturday, delving into specific topics and regional studies, but Ali’s message was echoed again and again. Speaker after speaker made it clear: Terrorist groups that claim Islamic ties, from Al Qaeda to ISIS, are not true Muslims, and certainly not representative of the faith.
Tiffany Bowers, representing Taiwan, warned against the dangers of “demonizing and dehumanizing” an entire group of people. Her mother came to the U.S. at the age of 18, she said, and Bowers’ brother now serves in the U.S. Navy.
Sitting on the panel less than 24 hours after the Paris attacks, she said her heart was “heavy” and she, like others, feared the backlash to come.
“Let us join hands, fellow citizens, in condemning both extremism in the name of Islam as well as hatred toward Islam and Muslims,” she said. “Now more than ever, our courage and our resolve will be tested.”