By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
When residents in the Bitterroot Valley rallied to persuade Ravalli County commissioners to approve a letter opposing the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the surrounding areas, the wheels began turning at a synagogue back in Missoula.
Around that time, Soft Landing was also working with the U.S. State Department to reopen a refugee resettlement office in Missoula. The regional talk of refugees and the off chance that some of them might be Muslim fanned the fires of controversy and saw its share of hateful rhetoric.
“Laurie Franklin, the rabbi at Har Shalom, had picked up on a lot of the anti-Muslim sentiment and decided to send out an email,” said Clem Work. “With that – in addition to the national anti-Muslim rhetoric on the campaign trail – she suggested we get together to form a group to see what we could do to combat this Islamophobia.”
Standing Alongside America’s Muslims, or SALAM, was born.
The Missoula-based group, of which Work is a member, has grown over the past few months by launching a Facebook page and incorporating a cross-section of religions. Later this month, the group will host its first “Celebrate Islam Week” in an effort to do what its acronym suggests by standing with the community’s Muslim residents.
“We want to push back against what we perceive as a rising tide of Islamophobia and counter it through conversation, and by projecting an image of what is undoubtedly the majority belief and the majority support of Islam as a religion,” Work said on Tuesday.
Work proudly notes the group’s composition, describing it as a little bit of everything. In that sense, he said, it represents America itself. He’s a self-proclaimed Episcopalian while Franklin is Jewish. Some members are Catholic and some are agnostic. SALAM also claims several Muslims, including Jameel Chaudhry and Samir Bitar.
The group is open to all comers, so long as they keep an open mind.
“There has been some really nice relationships formed and conversations that have come out of the recent discussions surrounding refugees,” said Betsy Mulligan-Dague, executive director of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center in Missoula. “I think the initial fears and concerns in a lot of cases have given way to better listening on both sides, and moving away from the notion that we need to convince someone that our position is right.”
In the months that have passed since protesters held picket signs outside the Missoula County Courthouse branding Muslims as rapists and killers, efforts by community leaders and civic organizations, including the Montana World Affairs Council and City Club Missoula, have worked to break down the barriers through improved education and dialogue.
The U.S. State Department approved Soft Landing’s request to reopen a refugee resettlement office in Missoula last month, and university professors – including Bitar – have attempted to dispel the stereotypes surrounding the Islamic faith.
“We know there are millions of Muslims settled successfully around this county, and many that live among us in Missoula,” said Mulligan-Dague. “We wanted to do something proactive and we’ve been talking for quite a while – talking to the churches in town to start the conversation to ensure that people of Islamic faith who are living here are comfortable and secure, and feel like this is a supportive community.”
With anti-Muslim rhetoric still dominating portions of the GOP presidential race and white supremacists burning down Mosques – as was the case recently in Tennessee – the members of SALAM are looking to create a platform for dialogue.
Open discussion and education is a good place to start in creating a welcoming, inclusive society, said Mulligan-Dague.
“These conversations give us a chance to put a face on the person,” she said. “I think that’s a great way to take away the fear – putting a face on a person or a neighbor in the community. When you say Muslim or Islam, it’s not just a little box. This is what it looks like. It’s not something you can generalize about.”
Celebrate Islam Week kicks off in Missoula on April 25. For a full listing of events, visit the SALAM website.