Written by Don Byrd

Al-Ghazaly High School is an Islamic school in Wayne, New Jersey. When its Imam discovered hateful responses directed at Muslims in the comment section of a local news column, he made a remarkable decision about how best to respond. He asked the seniors at the school to reply – not with vitriol or snark, but instead with facts.

Reverend Alexander Santora, whose column elicited the initial responses, went to the school to meet the senior class. He writes about his visit in his new column:

Confronted with hateful comments, Yousuf Tariq-Shuaib, 17, said “stay calm.”  The Paterson resident said some people want to be “edgy” to elicit a laugh.

“If we respond in kind, we add fuel to the fire,” he said.

He said we should simply try to inform. 

“Some people are afraid of what they do not understand,” 17-year-old Salma Zaiter, who lives in Clifton, said.  She said to keep a cool head and inform so people get a little bit of insight. 

Rama Saadi, 17, advised: “Don’t get angry and treat them well.”

The Hawthorne resident said to “smile at them with respect.”  

If that doesn’t give you hope, what will? Responding to bigotry with education, to anger with love and respect. Ultimately, the Muslim students said, hateful remarks about Islam and its adherents emerge from ignorance and “not knowing any Muslims personally.”

I couldn’t agree more. Getting to know those around us is an essential step toward bridging the damaging and dangerous religious divides that separate so many of our communities. I’m especially proud of the Baptist Joint Committee’s involvement with the Know Your Neighbor campaign, and initiative designed to open dialogue across religious and cultural lines. 

As the BJC has noted, “hate rhetoric and violence targeting religious minorities is as much a threat to religious liberty as any law or public policy.” We want our laws to support the rights of all, but the most effective antidote is empathy, understanding and dialogue. Kudos to the students of Al-Ghazaly High School for their example in this online effort, and to Reverend Santora for telling their story.

For more on what you can do, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s Know Your Neighbors campaign page.