At last Friday’s Jummah prayer, Muslims in Houston’s River Oaks community received a nice surprise as they arrived at the Islamic Society of Greater Houston (ISGH) mosque. Dozens of non-Muslim Houston demonstrators stood outside the mosque, holding up signs of support and positivity that read, “We are one America!” and “Be Strong. You Belong.”
Stephanie Koithan, who spearheaded the event, said that she felt she needed to do something productive to fight anti-Islamic rhetoric, something that went beyond sharing articles on her Facebook wall, stating, “I realized my activism couldn’t be confined to the virtual world.”
She reached out to ISGH after doing a Google search for Houston Islamic Centers and found the mosque’s Facebook page. After ensuring that an event of solidarity would be appreciated by ISGH and the Muslim community, Koithan created a Facebook page for the event and encouraged Houstonians to come out and support their Muslim neighbors. Her description of the event on the Facebook page read:
“In conjunction with the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, I would like to invite you to an event to show Houston’s Muslim families that they are accepted and welcome in their own country, the United States of America—the greatest melting pot of the world. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, many people are feeling disenfranchised and unwelcome in their chosen or native home, due to xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric. Though our country may be divided, let’s show the Muslim community that we are glad they’re here. This will be a loving, peaceful demonstration and we ask that participants keep it as such.”
The ISGH community received the participants with open arms, inviting them into the mosque after the prayer service. Demonstrators struck up conversations with the center’s volunteers, who gave them baked goods and wide smiles. Posing for photos with their signs, the men and women who had taken time out of their day to give a little love and support showed their Muslim friends that a small act of kindness can go a long way.
It is gestures like these that we need to cling to; they remind us that not all hope is lost, and that allies can be found even in the darkest of times.
Koithan, who is no stranger to activism, knows the importance of being involved in protests and events that place minority issues at the forefront of the problems we need to address as a society.
Like so many of us, she was blindsided by the results of the 2016 election and felt that she no longer knew her country. This drove her to try and make a difference — not just as an onlooker at a demonstration, but as a facilitator of one.
“The only way I can mentally get through the next four years is if I do something about it,” she said.
According to Koithan, the current climate in the United States extends beyond the election. Islamophobia has been a silent beast in America for more than a decade; born of 9-11, anti-Islamic rhetoric has existed in this country for 15 years. It’s been there, festering, locked up and waiting for the day when it could rear its ugly head. Now that the day has come. She went on to say that Americans need to look at their society — and themselves — to understand why this is happening, why they have allowed a climate of fear-mongering and hateful rhetoric to take control.
The scary thing when it comes to hate crimes, Koithan said, is that they are highly under-reported, largely because it is difficult for police to prove the intent behind the crime. This means that the number of hate crimes against Muslims could potentially be much higher than the 67% increase the FBI reported this year.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Koithan said.
This work, according to the New York native, is not the responsibility of Muslim-Americans. Instead, it falls into the hands of people like herself, activists and organizers who recognize Islam for what it truly is.
She went on to say that it’s a shame Muslims feel the need to prove that they are American, citing the importance of reaching out to those who are openly anti-Muslim. While still not knowing how to approach them, as they are often close-minded and not interested in learning about Muslims, Koithan believes that this where the work lies.
Demonstrations of solidarity are a step in the right direction. They show us that for every person who chooses to let hate speak for them, a hundred more choose to find the common ground that unites us as human beings — and they stand there, firmly, unmovable forces in the face of injustice.