By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
There are several reasons why at least 20 leaders from throughout Virginia recently participated in a conference call that the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities held to discourage Islamophobia.
Whether it is several new polls including one by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal that shows only 25 percent support Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entering the United State. Or the Nov. 15 Pew Research Center report that shows 40 percent of Millennials are more likely than older generations to say the government should be able to stop people from saying offensive statements about minority groups.
“Our organization said we needed to do something,” said Johnathan Zur, president and CEO of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities (VCIC), an organization that works with schools, business, and communities to achieve success through inclusion.
The problem is very little is being said out loud about Islamophobia in Virginia, although hecklers disrupted a meeting to discuss the expansion of a Fredericksburg mosque, according to the Washington Pos. Meanwhile at Virginia Tech, someone quietly scrawled graffiti on a campus building threatening to “kill all muslims.” And a fake bomb was left at a Fairfax mosque whose former Iman left the country and became a leader in al-Qaeda. The mayor of Roanoke said his city should refuse Syrian refugees, similar to what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II.
The point is while some are speaking from the shadows, so to speak, others are speaking out loud, like Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) who recently stood with Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in Richmond.
They spoke to emphasize the importance of religious freedom in the wake of comments against and attacks on Muslims in the United States.
“I understand that Virginians and Americans are afraid,” Warner said in the Washington Post, standing in front of a monument that commemorates religious freedom. “Some would say those freedoms are under attack today.”
And this is where that recent conference call, which VCIC held with several leaders, comes in. “I think folks are yearning for an opportunity to demonstrate their values,” Zur said. “This is a chance for many to uphold religious freedom laws and time honored values.”
Three responses surfaced during the recent conference call, Zur said. First, VCIC will release a joint statement “saying we don’t stand for hateful rhetoric at this time.” Second, in January VCIC will launch a website to increase awareness about hate speech. Third, the non-profit will host an event in January that will address this issue.
“It’s too premature to discuss the details now,” Zur said. “No plans have emerged yet. We are broadly recognizing that a few people are making comments that are targeting others. But we believe the majority are people of goodwill and are coming together.”
Malicious religious speech sounds familiar to Zur for several reasons. “My grandparents were Holocaust survivors,” he explained. His father who is from Israel moved to the U.S. in the 1970s. Zur was born in the U.S. He moved several years ago from New Jersey to Virginia, and began his tenure with the 80-year old non-profit in 2006 as vice president for operations.
While history show how anti-religious prejudice has harmed millions. Zur said, “It motivates me to stand up in this moment.”
Launched in Lynchburg in 1935 in response to anti Catholic and anti-Jewish rhetoric, VCIC has been recognized by many including the Virginia General Assembly, the Interfaith Council of Greater Richmond, and Urban League of Hampton Roads.
Zur is a graduate of the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies. He earned a certificate in Nonprofit Executive Leadership from Indiana University.
VCIC has trained more than 21,000 and has about 100 members in four chapters in Virginia, including Hampton Roads. Last year, it awarded a humanitarian award to Brenda H. Andrews, publisher and CEO of the New Journal and Guide.