My academic areas of research focus on Islamophobia and terrorism (of all kinds, not just Islamist terrorism). Meaning that normally, I spend a good portion of my day examining the dark side of humanity: the hatred towards Muslims shown by some in the US and Europe, the violence that take place in numerous parts of the world by both non-state terrorists groups and by nation-states, who often kill civilians in the so-called “war on terror.” When so much of your time is spent focusing on the very worst of humanity-it can be difficult believe that hope and goodness exists.
However, my week at Camp Couchdale with the Great River Region served as a reminder that despite the amount of hate and violence in the world-there are people, from across the political and theological spectrum who refuse to fall into the “US vs Them” mentality endorsed by terrorists and increasingly, by numerous western governments. I spent the week talking about islamophobia and terrorism and I was heartened by how many of the youth rejected the dominant media narrative that “all Muslims are terrorists.” Some pointed to personal experiences they have had with Muslims, while others instinctively knew how unfair it is to demonize a whole group of people based on the actions of the few. I didn’t have to tell them that violence and terrorism wasn’t limited to Islam, many told me about instances in which Christians have committed horrific actions in the name of God, yet they refuse to believe that those Christian group and individuals speak for them. Likewise, the campers argued that Muslim terrorists don’t speak for all Muslims.
I was humbled by the campers’ willingness to talk about difficult subjects; very few people want to examine the ways in which their own religion has inspired some to commit horrific acts of violence. I was also inspired by the campers’ openness to learning about Islam. The campers welcomed me and my message with open arms. Even when disagreement arose, as it always does, they were respectful of differing opinions and they were open to learning. In turn, they taught me about hope and radical acceptance for “the other”-which in this case were Muslims who are often vilified as terrorists.
The areas that I focus on in my academic research show me the dark side of humanity, my week at Camp Couchdale with the Great River Region youth, reminded me that hope and God’s presence can still be found.