March 29 2010 12:00 AM

MSU conference seeks to dispel myth surrounding Muslims’ connection to violence, terrorism

There’s no
question Muslims deal with a fair amount of stigma in the United States.
Negative images in the media, combined with the instilled fear of terrorism,
have left Americans wondering whom they can direct their anger and panic at. In
many cases, the answer has been the nation’s own Muslim American communities.

But Farha
Abbasi, a resident in Michigan State University’s department of psychiatry, is
aiming to change that.

Abbasi and her
team will be hosting “Why It Matters: Addressing the Myths and Realities of the
Relationship Among Mental Health, Violence and Muslims” at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, April 3 in
the MSU Union Ballroom.

The conference
will feature a number of speakers addressing hot topics around terrorism and
mental health as they relate to the Muslim community. Dr. Amin A. Muhammad
Gadit, M.D., will cover "Terrorism and Mental Health," while the army’s first
Muslim Chaplain, Abdul-Rasheed Mhammad, will share "Lessons from Fort Hood." Other speakers will address issues of discrimination and mental health, the
role of Islam in preventing violence, refugee health and the impact of negative
media images.

It’s Abbasi’s
hope that the lectures will stimulate dialogue and raise awareness.

“It's so
important to have this communication and sit down and have a dialogue,” she
said. “This is not just about Muslims and that's what I’m trying to promote
with this conference. I personally call it a war of ignorance, which can only
be won through awareness. The hope is that we keep using (this conference) as a
communication tool; as an ongoing dialogue.”

Part of that
discussion will focus on dispelling the myths surrounding homegrown terrorism
in Muslim American communities. David Schanzer, co-director of the Institute
for Homeland Security Solutions at Duke University, will serve as the
conference’s keynote speaker, drawing from a study he co-authored on
Anti-Terror Lessons of American Muslims.

“I think the
core research question (of the study) was ‘Why don't we see as much
radicalization and violent behavior among Muslim Americans as we do in other
Muslim places in the world?’” Schanzer explained. “We wanted to look at the
internal community factors and how Muslim American communities and individuals
were responding to this threat of radicalization … and seeing if we could
identify factors that were helping them to resist this ideology.”

What Schanzer
and his colleagues found was that many Muslim American communities —
unbeknownst to the general public — exercise self-policing and speak out within
their populations against terrorism or radicalization.

Moreover, the
study shows that many Muslim Americans feel personally responsibly for acts of
terrorism committed by those in their community.

It’s a sentiment
Abbasi knows all too well, and says accounts for much of the overlooked mental
health issues afflicting Muslim Americans. “We are, in subtle ways, really
carrying the burden,” she said. “My coworker told me somebody rear-ended him on
the way to work and the first thing that came out of my mouth was, 'Oh, please
tell me it was not a Muslim who did it.' I thought, 'Where did this joke come
from?' and I realized how much pressure we carry.”

Abbasi further
explained that Muslim patients often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder
or other mental health issues; however, suicide rates are very low. “And of
course the inevitable question is: Then why do you have suicide bombers?” she
said. “So I realized that unless I talk about the elephant in the room, we can
never go beyond that and have meaningful communication.”

Schanzer stressed that conversations on the issues of terrorism and violence
can never be productive unless the facts are set straight — something he hopes
to accomplish with dissemination of his study. “We hope that discussions about
these issues are based on some sort of sense of the facts and a recognition of
what the true scope of the problem is so we can address these issues in a
rational, sensible and fair fashion.”

For Abbasi, that
means facing stereotypes and negative images of Muslims head-on. "I
thought the best way to deal with it was to deal with all the 'buzz words' or
any derogatory comment ever affiliated with the community,” she explained.
“And, of course, the first thing is what I have been talking about is that
maybe all the terrorists on 9/11 were Muslim, but that does not mean that all
the Muslims are terrorists."

that truth, she contends, is the first step for Americans to surpass tolerance
and grow to accept Muslims as part of the county’s history, culture and — most
importantly — future. “There will always be people coming from different
cultures and different countries, bringing their issues here,” she admitted.
“But once you accept them as an individual, you can go beyond those
differences, find the common things and have a bond of respect.”

"Why it Matters"

8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, April 3

MSU Union

$10 MSU
students, $25 general public, free for Statewide Campus System residents,
psychiatry residents, College of Osteopathic Medicine students, MSU psychiatry
faculty, Muslim Studies Program faculty, SCS faculty and MSUCOM faculty and