OWATONNA — As rhetoric regarding immigrants, especially Muslims, has grown more incendiary, stereotypes have calcified, and myths developed, but Hanadi Chehabeddine, a Lebanese-born journalist and public speaker, will attempt to debunk misconceptions during a presentation Thursday at the Steele County History Center titled “Being Muslim in Minnesota.”
“The political rhetoric has taken on a life of its own,” said Chehabeddine, a wife and mother of three who has lived in the U.S. since 2008. “It has definitely changed for the worse since I got here.”
And while some minimize the importance of rhetoric, Chehabeddine, who is both a Muslim and an American citizen, argues that “words are everything.”
“I come from a country where political rhetoric in the name of religion led to a civil war,” she said.
So individuals from Lebanon are “very conscious of rhetoric,” said Chehabeddine, who has been published in, among other places, the Washington Times, The Huffington Post, and American Diversity Report. “The way we survived was to build bridges,” and she viewed that as “my calling when I came to the U.S.”
From 1975 to 1990, Lebanon was embroiled in a multi-faceted civil war that killed more than 100,000 and led to an exodus from the country of nearly 1 million people, according to the American Central Intelligence Agency’s World Fact Book. Though the war finally came to an end after 15 destructive years, tensions continue to simmer in the Middle East’s most religiously-diverse nation, a place with 18 recognized religious sects, led by roughly 54 percent Muslims — an even split in that group between Sunni and Shia — and 40 percent Christians.
Though she’d spent time both in London and Dubai, Chehabeddine lived most of her life in Lebanon, so she had to grow accustomed to “a totally different lifestyle” when she moved to Minnesota a decade ago with her husband, she said. She quickly discovered a reticence of Americans to socialize with “those who look different or have different views,” and while that bias exists everywhere, Minnesota is “much better than other states” in terms of being “welcoming and supportive.”
“Our elected officials are very aware, and Minnesota is really family-oriented,” she said. “I love Minnesota.”
Indeed, attending early-childhood education classes with her young children “helped a lot” in terms of assimilating into the country, she said. “I connected with so many people just on the basis of being a mom.”
Unfortunately, whenever a terror attack is carried out by a group claiming to be under the flag of Islam — like ISIS — Muslims “are on the defensive,” Chehabeddine said. “I know a lot of (Muslims) who won’t go out after a terrorist attack, because people are angry, and they channel that anger” at Muslims they encounter.
Rather than listening to those who are often either clueless or opportunistic, individuals wondering about Muslims should examine the two primary texts of the religion, the Quran and the Sunnah, the latter of which recorded the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, she said. “Bypass the opinions of others.”
“We’re all grown-ups here,” she added. “We can all make our own opinions” based on textual evidence, rather than parroting others.
The Steele County Historical Society explores not only the past, “but we are looking at what in the present day will define Steele County history,” said Stephanie Kibler, meetings and special events manager at the history center. “Demographics have changed dramatically, (and) as our communities grow and change, education is key to us having an open dialogue and understanding of one another.”
“It is my hope that Hanadi’s presentation will bring awareness of what it means to be Muslim and dispel some of the fears that we may have,” Kibler added. The event, which starts at 7 p.m. and is sponsored by the United Way of Steele County “through the generous support” of a Bush Foundation Community Innovation Grant, is free to the public.
Americans have a tendency to “consume information without much critical thinking,” and so many “fear” Muslims, though most have never met one, Chehabeddine said. “To fear someone you have never spoken to and made no effort to get to know — and to judge a whole community without meeting them — I find that extreme.”
In the U.S., Muslims too often are viewed as “the other,” so it’s pivotal “to humanize Muslims,” she said. “Education and awareness are missing, which is why I frame my work in education.”
Chehabeddine travels around the country, often speaking with companies about eliminating bias.
“My background is in branding, and I’m also a media professional,” having anchored multiple shows in Lebanon, but when she arrived in America, “I didn’t know what to do with the skills and experience I had developed,” she said. However, she “saw Islam being hijacked by terrorists on television, and the lack of Muslim representation (in popular culture) is horrendous,” so “I started speaking out,” first among her friends, but then also with writing, social media, and volunteering with a local non-profit group.
“I want to get to know my fellow Americans, listen to their stories, and tell them my story,” she said. “It’s extremely important to lead thoughtful conversations with wisdom, knowledge, and compassion.”
It’s also critical for those conversations to not always have to be led by Muslims, she said. Pillars of the community must also step up to help foster openness, collaboration, and diversity.
“None of us want our kids to be biased and hateful,” she concluded. “We need to support each other.”