Facing Islamophobia

In the wake of the recent terror attacks in New Zealand specifically targeting Muslims, I wondered, as we all often do when presented with such tragedies, why? Why did this random person feel compelled to take innocent lives? What motivated this attack? When examining this specific instance, the answer seemed obvious to me: Islamophobia taken to the extreme. The cause of this attack was rampant ignorance, fundamental misunderstanding, fear, and hatred of things different from ourselves.

As I am in a position where I do not have to experience Islamophobia, I reached out to Furman’s Muslim Student Alliance (MSA) to see if together we could dispel some of the ignorance and showcase the experience of Muslims in hopes of humanizing a religion that is deeply stigmatized and frequently misconstrued in Western culture.

I interviewed three current Furman students and one Furman graduate for this story. I have not altered their words in anyway other than to make them more understandable; these are their real opinions and experiences.


Have you experienced any instances of Islamophobia?

Amanda, a recent convert: “my parents’ did not approve of my conversion and specifically told me that ‘[wearing a hijab] is incongruent with feminism’.”

Ahmed: “I went to a catholic high school and [this girl] didn’t believe me that Muslims can’t accept the priests’ blessing so she like marched me up to the priest, so I’d partake. I thought I was going to hell for a bit there."

The most extreme encounter involved a person yelling one of the interviewees, who wishes to remain anonymous

Anonymous: ‘This guy was saying that all Muslims were terrorists. I (interviewee) tried to defend my religion (and myself) but the person responded by punching me in the face. I defended myself [physically] and broke his nose, but the instigator pulled out a knife and stabbed me in the side. I still have a scar.”

The interviewee was not certain that the person actively believed that all Muslims are terrorists but was definitely looking for a fight.


How open are you about your religion?

Muneeba: “I’m very open about my religion, I don’t think there has ever been a moment where I’ve been ashamed or embarrassed of being a Muslim.”

Ahmed: “I’m usually pretty quiet about being Muslim until I’ve gauged the person though, so I don’t get into bad situations.”

Anonymous: “I don’t tell people until they ask. They don’t treat you as badly and you can go on with your life. It’s different for men, though. People always know when a woman wears a hijab that she’s Muslim.”


Do people treat you differently when they find out that you're Muslim?

Muneeba: “Sometimes, especially when they’ve never met a Muslim before. Or have met but never had a real conversation with them.”

Ahmed: “Uh yea. Everyone always expects me to be like super stringent or an extremist about Islam especially since I don’t drink they’re like whoa he’s devote. So, people get kind of careful about it."

Anonymous: “Even though I’m treated differently, I don’t worry about getting jobs in the future. If my qualifications are the same as everyone’s I’m alright. My parents are worried because they have to get their visas renewed and this administration [makes it more difficult]. But I’m not worried; the younger generation is more integrated.”


Is it better or worse on Campus/where you live now?

Anonymous: “the people in downtown are more judgmental and stare often”.

Ahmed: I was definitely “more exotic” in South Carolina than [at home]. California is weird only because most people [in his experience] aren’t religious.”

Muneeba: “It’s about the same, I’ve never experienced anything bad, but awareness could be brought to the topic [of Islam].”

Amanda: “I’ve gotten a few stares, but no ignorant comments yet.”


Do you get treated differently by authorities (cops, TSA, professors, etc.)?

Anonymous: “I’m much more likely to be “randomly” selected by the TSA.”

Muneeba: “Maybe TSA, but I have been pulled over a lot by police, but I don’t think it’s because of my religion.”

Ahmed: “I got randomly selected for extra screening three times in an island airport. I also didn’t get a boarding pass on our 8th grade trip to D.C.”


Have your schools/workplace (in the past and now) been accommodating for your religious practices (time for prayer, holidays off, etc.)?

Muneeba; “No, and it’s unfortunate. Like I have class on Friday during Jummah (prayer), and [MSA] wanted to bring someone on campus [to hold Friday prayers here for the pubic], but I still wouldn’t be able to attend because I have class.”

Anonymous: “I have classes on Fridays, so I can’t go to Friday prayers. I was only allowed one day off from an entire holy week and had to make up the work for that day. They [the school] forced me to sit in the cafeteria while I was fasting.”

They also expressed frustration in that fact that Christian holy days are always worked around but holy days for other religions get a little blurb on the calendar and require lots of red tape breaking to get off.

Ahmed: “More often than not [workplaces] are super accommodating for Friday prayer and praying throughout the day. It ends up being like a bathroom break *laughs*. I’ve never been able to get a day off for a holiday though. It means the vacation I do get is kind of centered around those days.”


What's the worst stereotype about Muslims?

Anonymous: “That we’re all terrorists. And that we don’t understand Christianity. It’s the same God. People focus on differences.”

Amanda: “That all Muslims are terrorists and in favor of female oppression. Many progressive Muslims are actually feminists."

Muneeba: “That we’re all terrorists and we’re all Arab (Arab doesn’t equal Muslim and Muslim doesn’t equal Arab). Also, that it’s an oppressive religion; Islam was very progressive for its day.”

Ahmed: “That we’re all Arab. It’s a stereotype that even I find myself falling into a lot. Muslim is not Arab. The majority of Muslims are Asian actually and those are probably the most marginalized Muslims in the world.”


What's something that you wish that people would understand about Muslims/Islam?

Anonymous: “We’re exactly the same as everyone else. We have the same God (as Christians) just a different language. Also, Muslims are very kind and willing to help, but [they] aren’t given the same opportunities to show it.”

Amanda: “We don’t worship Muhammad as a God; he’s a prophet. Also, Jesus is treated as a prophet and his word and teachings are valid, as is the Bible. Part of the reason I converted [from Christianity] is that I didn’t have to reject Jesus.”

Muneeba: “Honestly, ask a Muslim if you have a question. Read reliable news sources and try to focus on the unbiased ones. But if a Muslim (student) doesn’t have an answer, reach out to an Islamic studies professor or a Muslim professor, and if that still doesn’t help, reach out to the Islamic community or better yet the local imam.”

Ahmed: “It’s literally blasphemy to claim someone is going to hell or to pass judgement on others. Like aside from killing people, which itself isn’t islamically legal, it’s considered shirk (polytheism) to think yourself the same position as Allah and say others are going to hell.”


How do people talk about Muslims/Islam? Is it similar to how they talk about illegal immigrants?

Ahmed: “Muslims are rarely talked about anymore. It’s always Islam broadly. Islamic terrorists. Whenever Muslims are mentioned it’s when trying to sympathize with people. Islam is talked about like al Qaeda or something like it’s this unified terrorist Group rather than billions of people.”

Muneeba: “Somewhat, it’s not like we’re bringing sharia law or something with us. We would have to abide the laws of the country we’re living in. Just like illegal immigrants, they can’t make their own laws. They would have to abide by the laws of the country they’re in. But they’re both given negative views and both groups have been judged badly whether it’s about religion/race or if a country is having a crisis and you need to flee.”

Anonymous: “Absolutely. They’re always saying, ‘Why are you here? Go back to your country’. We’re also both stigmatized and talked about from our worst parts.”


Has there been an uptick in Islamophobia with the Trump Administration?

Ahmed: “Yes absolutely. It’s like suddenly it’s a form of patriotism or a right.”

Muneeba: “Oh yes, when Pres. Trump was running for the presidency, I was constantly scared for my parents. I didn’t want anything happening to them in the public. People do say aggressive things and also do act on aggressive things. I did experience some negativity during this time especially because I’m so opened about my religion and people know I’m available to talk or ask questions if needed. So, I was constantly told by my dad to not be so open because he was constantly worried but I refused to listen."

Anonymous: “It’s there but no one wants to admit it.”


Do you think that people are genuinely afraid of Muslims or just ignorant?

Amanda: “Yes. The media has a bias toward extremism. Mainstream Muslims don’t agree with extremists, and most extremist behavior is un-Islamic.”

Ahmed: “I think ignorance is the majority of it, but I think there is genuine fear in something different like that.”

Muneeba: “It could be both, but I think it’s mostly being ignorant. The news outlets and definitely social media has impacted people's’ opinions and has stopped them from thinking another way.”


What's your opinion on Hijab?

Muneeba: “I don’t have a problem with the hijab, I only wear it when I’m in a religious setting so like the mosque, when I’m praying, or if someone is having a religious event at their home.”

Amanda: “At first I was nervous to wear Hijab in public, but now I’m more comfortable in it especially since I can’t be judged for my hair. It’s a sign of modesty and humility before God; I also see it as a sign of strength. It’s not oppressive because there’s a dress code for men as well; we are all supposed to cover our heads. Hijab isn’t required for women except for in prayer and inside a Mosque.”

Anonymous: “My sister is getting to the age that she’s supposed to be wearing Hijab. It’s her decision. My mother didn’t wear one until she was married. Hijab is a to protect a woman’s purity and represent her respect for God. It’s not oppressive. Saudi Arabia is oppressive because it makes women wear only black and cover everything beside their hands and eyes.”


Are there positive stereotypes about Muslims/Islam?

Amanda: “That we are hospitable.”

Muneeba: “I think more Islamic countries have had more women leadership in their countries (unlike the USA). [The US] had two Muslim women elected in Congress this past election. We finally have Muslim women day (which is on March 27th) and that is celebrated every year. The founder of muslimgirl.com started it a few years ago.”


Is there anything you'd like to add?

Anonymous: People and organizations at Furman are too one dimensional. We need diversify. Gatherings and events are too socially specific. We should be willing to broaden our horizons.”

Amanda: “The Quran mandates that all Muslims should have knowledge; the Taliban banning women’s education is un-Islamic. Also, jihad is a struggle between good and evil. Lesser Jihad (holy war) was necessary during the founding, but even Muhammed said [once the wars were over] that now is the time for the greater jihad (the inner struggle of good and evil). Taking up arms isn’t necessary anymore; only a small percentage of extremists believe that the lesser jihad is still necessary. And those terrorist groups who act on that usually break a lot of Islamic laws… I converted because I developed a respect for Muhammad and his teachings. I was tired of Christian fundamentalists saying that evolution is a lie or denying science in general. While there are creationists in Islam as well, Islam in general speaks of natural phenomena as signs of God. In fact, Muslims made many scientific advancements during the Middle Ages which were foundational for discoveries in the Renaissance and Enlightenment.”


While these are the experiences of only four people, the unfortunate truth is that their experiences reflect the experiences of the millions of Muslims around the world. Education and humanization are key to fighting islamophobia in our nation and across the globe. I want to thank my interviewees for sharing their time and stories with me.

A CLP will be held about Islamophobia on April 4 from 7-8:30 pm in Mceachern Lecture Hall. This CLP will consist of a lecture that is intended to demonstrate where many of the contemporary stereotypes about Islam and Muslims have stemmed from and address the problematic label of “otherness” that accompanies Islam and Muslims. I hope to see you all there.