In the weeks since the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed at least 130 people, some of the Republican Party presidential candidates have lashed out against Islam, making life especially uncomfortable for Americans who happen to be Muslim.
In the heat of this political drama, with Republican candidates like Trump warning that Muslims pose a threat in the United States, what is it really like to live as a Penn student of Muslim faith in today’s contentious climate?
For College sophomore Saadia Akram, Islamic Education Co-Chair of the Penn Muslim Student Association, the toughest part of being a Muslim at Penn is simply not having enough people who understand Islam or the basic tenets of what Muslims truly believe.
“While Penn is a diverse community, I still think people are simply just not educated about Muslims and Islam,” Akram said. “This lack of education can seem rather alienating as a Muslim student.”
On Dec. 7, GOP presidential candidate and 1968 Wharton graduate Donald Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
“Our country cannot be the victims of horrendous acts by people that believe only in Jihad and have no sense of reason or respect for human life,” he said.
Despite the lack of any evidence, Trump also has held firm to his contention that New Jersey Muslims cheered the World Trade Center’s destruction on Sept. 11, 2001.
The Council on American–Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group, said in a Nov. 24 statement that since the Paris attacks it had received more reports about “acts of Islamophobic discrimination, intimidation, threats, and violence targeting American Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslim) and Islamic institutions” than during any other similar time period since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“It seems kind of pessimistic because I don’t think it’s going to get better anytime soon,” Akram said. “Every time an attack happens I feel like we have to apologize for something we didn’t do and we should be afforded the same innocence as other groups because it’s not the entire Muslim community that committed a crime.”
Akram also mentioned that while she has never experienced direct discrimination as a Penn student, she believes that more of an effort could be made by both the Penn and Muslim communities to dispel stereotypes about Islam.
However, she stated that many religious groups on campus have shown solidarity with the Penn Muslim community in the midst of troubling times. She mentioned that several members of the Christian and Jewish communities have attended Friday prayers, where a mix of students and local scholars alternate in delivering the weekly khutbah, or public address.
“President [Amy] Gutmann has issued statements in support of the Penn Muslim community, which I am thankful for,” Akram added.
“Discrimination against Muslims in our society is absolutely unacceptable,” Gutmann said in a Jan. 13 meeting with The Daily Pennsylvanian editorial board. “It is, I believe, a disgrace for our society to engage in discrimination on the basis of religion or race.”
Kameelah Rashad, the campus minister to the Muslim community at Penn and founder of the Muslim Wellness Foundation, said that there has been heightened sensitivity to questions about Islam from both Muslim students and the administration throughout the year in relation to the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting and recent Paris attacks.
These events have created a situation where Muslims have been requested to either condemn terrorist attacks or provide an explanation that would make logical sense of extremists’ actions when “we are not any more well-equipped to explain the actions of either terrorists or ISIS,” she said.
An issue is the extent to which Islam itself is a core factor in what is variously called “Islamic extremism” or “Islamic terrorism.” There are still those commentators in the political arena who blame the 1.6 billion practicing Muslims for the barbaric actions of a few outliers.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, American Muslims — and other Muslims around the world — have consistently said that the actions of terrorists who say their motives come from an interpretation of Islam are actually antithetical to the religion.
“The majority of Muslims who have thought long and hard about this will say there is political and economical motivation cloaked in the language of religion and not in any way a reflection of our religion,” Rashad said.
Joseph Lowry, an associate professor in Penn’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, said that he strives to foster curiosity about Islamic law and the Muslim faith through his courses.
“What I try to get across at least in my undergraduate teaching,” Lowry said, “is that the major textual parts of the Islamic tradition, like the Quran or the traditions from the prophet or writings about Islamic law, are interesting and rich and there’s nothing sinister about them.
“I think mostly violent extremism is not caused by people’s theology, it’s caused by the material conditions in which they live,” Lowry said. “But those ideologies, whether religious or political, are often useful ways of expressing these kinds of violent extremism and [we] can’t necessarily take those expressions of violent extremism as typical of the whole tradition. Often they’re marginal and I think that’s the case for ISIS.”
Despite the efforts of scholars to dispel stereotypes about Islam, Muslim students still face cases of aggression because of their religion, occasionally even in an academic setting, Rashad said.
“It happens,” Rashad said. “Experiencing overt discrimination, harassment or aggression, it happens, and especially if you’re visibly Muslim: women who wear hijabs or men who have more religious markers.”
She explained that students are constantly asked to explain certain radical Islamic phenomena just because they are Muslim, which “takes away a level of individuality and also doesn’t acknowledge their own pain and challenges that many students may feel.”
“What becomes more exhausting is when it’s more insidious, in the kind of subtle microaggressions: being stared at, feeling hyper-vigilant, wondering about safety,” she added. “That actually takes on a strong psychological toll.”
While a spirit of solidarity on campus has taken form in the support of other religious organizations at Penn, it will be a continuing issue for Muslim students as to whether or not achieving tolerance on American campuses from their peers will simply be enough for them to practice their faith freely.
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