To Combat Islamophobia, Start Where You Are

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

To Combat Islamophobia, Start Where You Are

by Maria Mottola, Executive Director, New York Foundation

I woke up yesterday morning to the news of what had happened in Brussels with a now-familiar sense of dread—not for myself but for my neighborhood. Bay Ridge Brooklyn has always been home to people from all parts of the world.  It ranks just behind Jackson Heights and Flushing in the numbers of people who are foreign-born. And it’s been true for many decades—most of my neighbors are children or grandchildren of people who came from Ireland, Norway, Syria, Lebanon, Central America, Russia, and China. Adjacent storefronts along just one block include: Farmacia, Dabbas Medical, China One Fresh Taco Inc., and Schnitzel Haus. 

This gathering of assorted people from virtually everywhere gives the neighborhood its vibrancy.  But there’s also an undercurrent of mistrust as new groups of people make their homes here. It has always been true, even for my great grandfather, a political exile, who came to Bay Ridge from Sicily in the early 1900s, whose Norwegian and Irish neighbors tried to block him from moving in.

Our newest immigrant neighbors come from parts of the world that are in turmoil—much as my own grandfather did. But they face a much more blatant and insidious form of fear and suspicion, especially following news of violence both from abroad and here in the United States. Each time something happens, most recently the attacks in Paris and in California, my Arab and Muslim neighbors are again objects of derision and distrust. A woman in her hijab was spat upon while waiting at the bus stop. Hecklers disrupted Friday prayers at the local mosque. Hate speech polluted neighborhood social media sites. This week’s events will ignite similar vitriol.

Working at a local foundation, we also brace ourselves for the effects that events here and abroad will have on our grantees that serve Muslim Arab and South Asian communities. We know from past experience that these organizations bear the weight of responding to the heightened fear and discrimination their communities face in times like these.

We have a responsibility to respond as well.

  • From our positions in philanthropy, we can amplify the message that hate and xenophobia are not to be tolerated. We must condemn messages that promote exclusion and discrimination. Those of us who can should counter with our own messages of religious tolerance and full inclusion of immigrants.
  • We can listen and learn from leaders in the Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities. A February forum, co-sponsored by Philanthropy New York, the New York Foundation, the New York Community Trust and the Ford Foundation brought together more than 100 foundation, government, and community leaders to talk about how the recent escalation of anti-Muslim rhetoric is affecting New York’s Muslim community. Such forums increase our understanding, reveal our biases, and also deepen our relationships with people on the frontlines of this work.

Bay Ridge Unity Rally, January 2016 Photo credit: Kyu Nakama

  • More support is needed to shore-up trusted community-based organizations that serve New York’s Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities. Many of these groups, operating with limited capacity, struggle to address on-going pressing problems in under-resourced neighborhoods. To that end, the New York Community Trust recently announced it would allocate $500,000 to build the capacity of these groups—other funders should join them.


As New Yorkers we have a responsibility to act as well. Back in Bay Ridge, heightened political rhetoric that fuels hate is being met with strong statements of opposition. More than 300 neighborhood residents held a unity march and summit to mark Martin Luther King Day. More events and a lawn sign campaign are planned for the spring.

We can’t be neutral bystanders—not where we work, not where we live. If we are truly partners to the nonprofits we support, we need to acknowledge issues that have far-reaching consequences for the communities they serve. As New Yorkers, we should be outraged that, in fundamental ways, our basic values are at risk.

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