Opening Eyes And Minds

Opening Eyes And Minds

As Americans’ perceptions of Islam grow increasingly negative, Muslim students and professors find themselves educating their college communities

By Dina M. Horwedel

It’s not easy being a Muslim student or professor on a U.S. college campus these days. Classmates and colleagues are curious and filled with questions. Some members of campus communities have reported being verbally harassed and made to feel uncomfortable, finding themselves in the role of having to educate their peers about and defend Islam. Although some tire of the burden, others embrace the opportunity to increase awareness and understanding.

Katayoun Donnelly, a third-year law student at the University of Denver and a native of Iran, says she constantly fields questions about her native country these days. In her opinion, Americans’ lack of knowledge about Islam and Arabic countries stems from a cultural disinterest in foreign issues.

“I know it’s not their [Americans’] fault, so I try to be open and answer questions,” she says. “Unless everyone, Americans and non-Americans alike, decide to humanize other people that live in the rest of the world, nothing is going to change.”

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted earlier this year found that 46 percent of Americans have a negative view of Islam. In the months immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, that number was only 39 percent. When asked, 58 percent of those polled said there are more violent extremists within Islam than in other religions.

With perceptions as they are, it’s understandable that Nazia Ahmed, a senior political science and history major at the University of Connecticut, avoids conversations on sensitive topics, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But when the subject comes up in her political science courses, Ahmed, who is Pakistani but born in the United States, often finds herself thrust into the spotlight.

“It is hard to be Muslim right now because people think you’re a representative for all Muslims, and you speak for all Muslims in the world,” she says. Ahmed is currently public relations chair for the campus Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), which she says reaches out to other organizations on campus and has a close working relationship with the Jewish campus organization, Hillel.

Ahmed says she’s never been harassed on campus, but she recalls an MSA event that became a bit tense when a group of evangelical Christian students began making rude comments and questioned why the MSA was allowed to restore a campus building into a mosque.

Bassam Tariq, a second-year junior at the University of Texas at Austin and publicity officer for that university’s MSA chapter, says several members of his group were recently confronted by men handing out comics that featured offensive pictures, including images of the Prophet Muhammad praying to Jesus. According to Tariq, the men became argumentative with the MSA students. Despite the incident, which is being investigated, Tariq says the environment on campus is very accepting and open, and he isn’t sure whether the men were actually students.

Community Engagement
A growing number of colleges and universities are holding events to educate their communities and to help combat ignorance and increase awareness of Islam.  More chapters of the Muslim Students’ Association are popping up across the country as well. According to MSA’s national office, there were nearly 600 chapters at American and Canadian community colleges and four-year institutions in 2005, up from the 400-450 chapters that existed in 1994. But just 150 are officially affiliated with the national umbrella group. The organization attributes the growth to second-generation Muslims going to college in the mid-1990s. 

In April, the MSA chapter at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., held its first Islam Awareness Week. Entitled “Bridging the Gap: Islam’s True Colors,” events included lectures, discussions and short films.
Sohaid Sultan, part-time Muslim chaplain at both Trinity and Yale University, says several institutions have been hosting similar events for decades, and he hopes that Trinity’s event will be held annually.

“We felt that given the high attention and focus placed on the Muslim community and the Islamic world it was important for the Muslim student population to increase engagement with students and the community,” says Sultan, adding that the various events attracted a mixture of Muslim and non-Muslim students and community members. Sultan says many of the non-Muslims who attended the events told him the event changed their perceptions about Islam.

Christopher Rose, outreach coordinator for the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, says skewed perspectives of the Middle East and the Islamic world run rampant in the United States.

“A lot of Americans still don’t realize that all Arabs are not Muslim and that most Muslims are not Arabs,” says Rose who, along with his colleagues, helps design

K-12 programs for teachers so that they can answer their students’ questions about the traditions of Islam and other major faiths.

The University of Utah’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies holds public lectures by prominent national and international specialists, seminars for high school teachers and other events. They also host the regional Model Arab League (MAL) competition and send a student team to the national competition in Washington, D.C. The MAL, administered by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, is a parliamentary simulation program for high school and college students in which students assume the role of Arab diplomats to formally debate, informally discuss and attempt to build consensus on issues facing the Arab world.

 Improving Perceptions & Portrayals
Many Muslim students and professors say misinformation and misperceptions about Islam are fueled by the media, and therefore, feed Americans’  hostility towards Muslims.

Zabihullah Noori, an Afghan graduate student and Fulbright fellow in the University of Oregon’s journalism program, says the U.S. media has been unfair in reflecting the news and reality in Afghanistan.

He says that because news coverage is so consistently focused on the ongoing military actions against the Taliban and the Iraqi insurgents, “most young Americans think of all Muslims as one group, and they label all Muslims as terrorists, which is completely wrong and offensive to Muslims.” Noori says that by focusing only on the Taliban hold-outs, and not depicting other stories of progress in Afghanistan, Americans only get one side of the story. He notes that few people have access to balanced and accurate information, which he says could improve Americans’ knowledge and perceptions.

Margaret E. Zanger, associate professor of journalism at the University of Arizona, agrees that America’s media coverage lacks framework and context.

“I think there is no doubt that the way the media covers the Muslim and Arab world is poor,” says Zanger, who has worked in Iraq as training director for War and Peace Reporting, a London-based organization. She says “parachute journalists” have a hard time covering complicated stories in Iraq because they often lack the connections needed to fully explore the story. Adding more difficulty to their mission, many media outlets are more focused on entertainment than providing information, she says. As a result, Zanger says many people have “no foundation or context of world news; nothing other than American history in high school. If people were given a framework, it would give them a foundation for lifelong exploration.”

The latest battleground between Western media and Islam occurred several months ago, after cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad — which originally appeared in a small Danish newspaper in September — were reprinted and caught the attention of the Muslim world.  The cartoons sparked violent protests in several Muslim countries, killing dozens of people. What had been a controversy over religious tradition quickly evolved into a debate about free speech and the First Amendment once it reached the United States. While most newspapers stayed away from the controversy, some college publications met it head on, igniting more protests. 

Acton H. Gorton, the editor of the University of Illinois student-run newspaper, The Daily Illini, was fired in March after he chose to publish the cartoons without first consulting the rest of the editorial staff.
In February, College Republicans at the University of California, Irvine, displayed the cartoons at a campus forum on Islamic extremism. The event provoked strong protests from Muslim students who denounced the cartoons as racist.

Saleh Ibrahim, an Egyptian student working on his doctorate in computer engineering at the University of Connecticut, says he is “worried about the consequences of the ongoing war [and] that some Americans still think of it as a war between good and evil, the evil being Islam.”

Ibrahim says he generally feels safe in his community, although once “a number of guys in the street yelled at me, mentioning the infamous [Osama] bin Laden.”

Ibrahim says he decided to study in the United States in part to help educate Americans about Islam and Muslims.

“I felt that the presence of Muslim students in the United States can help bridge the two cultures and lay the groundwork for a better understanding of the religion of truth.”



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