Battling Islamophobia, at Swat and beyond

On Thanksgiving day, a taxi driver in Pittsburgh was shot in the back by his passenger because he was Muslim. For some years now, Islamophobic sentiment has been on the rise in the US. Following the Paris attacks just over two weeks ago, it has become clear that there exists what is essentially an industry of Islamophobia that is continuously gaining legitimacy. It leaves me deeply disturbed to see so many lives lost and a nation thrown into grief and turmoil at the hands of utterly senseless violence, as I’m sure it would any thinking, feeling individual.

More specifically, as a Muslim, it breaks my heart to see my religion being so grossly misrepresented by the perpetrators of such acts. What I find especially infuriating, and frankly quite frightening, is the willingness with which so many Americans blur, and often entirely erase, the distinction between ordinary Muslims and the extremist fringe. In my view, the actions carried out by these extremists are so far removed from the tenets and essence of Islam that they cannot even be considered Muslims in the true sense. And from my own experience and extensive interaction with other Muslims, I can guarantee that I am not alone in my beliefs. Those who claim that Islam promotes violence do themselves, and the rest of us, a great disservice. Such people possess neither any substantial insight nor a genuine desire to better inform themselves. By conveniently oversimplifying the issue, they merely end up generating more hate and playing right into the hands of terrorist groups like ISIS, whose express aim it is to make life unbearable for Muslims in the West.

My faith is a core part of my identity — it is something that has given me direction, support, and a sense of peace that is all-encompassing and beautifully overwhelming. In other words, my experience of Islam is diametrically opposed to the image of Islam put forth by extremists and mainstream media alike. The former manipulate Islamic teachings to aid their social and political agendas, and the latter have made it their job to further propagate misconceptions by means of clear biases, exaggeration, and selective reporting. The numbers speak for themselves; Muslims make up approximately 0.9 percent of the American population. It is inconceivable that such a small minority could pose such huge danger to the rest of the population, and yet we see a considerable amount of energy being channeled into combating the so-called Muslim ‘threat’.  There have been numerous revenge attacks on Muslims in the US in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. But what is perhaps more troubling than these incidents is the stance many politicians have chosen to adopt. More than half the nation’s governors have stated their aim to refuse, or at least make very difficult, the settlement of Syrian refugees. Ted Cruz, a Republican candidate for the 2016 presidential election, has recommended that while Christian refugees should be allowed into the States, the same opportunity should not be extended to Muslims. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is in favor of closing down mosques and making it mandatory for Muslims to carry special identification cards that note their faith. Ben Carson, another Republican candidate, believes that a Muslim would be fit to be president of the United States only if he or she was to “reject the tenets of Islam”. The list goes on and on, but I think you get the picture. It has become acceptable to hate Muslims, and to try and pretend otherwise would be to tell a blatant lie.

Being at Swarthmore, I am lucky not to have encountered the kind of racist discrimination embodied by these statements. I don’t doubt that there may be some people on this campus who also subscribe to such views, but I have never had a negative experience. I am in an insulated, protected space; clearly, Swarthmore is not a representative sample of the US population at large. It is scary even to place myself in the shoes of the countless Muslims in America who are not part of such a safe and accepting environment. At any rate, it is unlikely that I will settle here in the long term; my problem is a somewhat temporary one. On the other hand, I can only imagine the challenge faced by Muslims who call America home. It must be incredibly difficult to have to reconcile two crucial parts of one’s identity, when those parts are so often forced to be at odds with one another.

If you saw me on the street, you probably wouldn’t be able to immediately tell that I’m Muslim. But ask me a few questions, and it wouldn’t be long before you know. And then what? No one should ever have to feel the need to hide parts of their identity. I refuse to feel that way, and I refuse to be told what my religious identity means by someone who has absolutely no connection to it. I’m still waiting for the day that I’m not ‘randomly’ selected for a security check when flying into the US. Maybe I’m waiting in vain, and maybe I’m being naïve, but I believe it has to get worse before it gets better. And because we as Swatties know better, I think it is our job to make the necessary change, to stop sitting on the sidelines, to stand up and speak out.

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