America has often been considered a “melting pot” of people, cultures, and experiences. Ever since the first colonial settlement in Jamestown, America has attracted people from all around the world, meshing different cultures to create our own. As Americans, we pride ourselves in being determined, not afraid to take risks, and connected by the freedom that embodies the values of this nation.
On February 13, 2011 in Yorba Linda, California, protesters showed up at an Islamic Center of North America (ICNA) relief fundraising event to taunt the Muslim American attendees. They chanted “U-S-A” and “GO BACK HOME” as families, most of whom were born in the U.S., showed up to support women’s shelters and the homeless.
In November 2015, the Islamic Center of Fredericksburg proposed a plan to build a mosque in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. The plans to build the 8,000-square-foot mosque attracted a series of anti-Muslim comments and an unexpected crowd at the first meeting on November 11, 2015 to discuss these plans. Some claimed that they were concerned with “traffic,” but others took issue with the fact that they thought “every Muslim is a terrorist.”
Last year, during his presidential campaign, Republican President-Elect Donald Trump called for a ban of Muslims entering the country. He supported this decision by saying, “our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.” He has also called for a database to monitor Muslims, special I.D. cards to be issued to them, and the shutting down of some mosques.
Since Trump’s election on November 8, 2016, his administration has been asked many questions about Trump’s previous statements regarding Muslim Americans. A key member of Trump’s transition team, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, told Reuters that they are looking into preparing a proposal for the registry for Muslims. The Trump administration has not commented on implementing I.D. cards for Muslims or the shutting down of mosques since election day.
Haya Ghandour is a 15-year-old student at the American Community School in Beirut, Lebanon. She was born and raised in Beirut and has been practicing Islam all of her life. She visited Richmond and Collegiate as a part of her school’s delegation to the International Emerging Leaders Conference in October 2016.
To her, her religion is “a way of life.” “Islam promotes peace, promotes tolerance, promotes happiness, and promotes acceptance,” she says. She uses it to help her work to achieve the goals she sets for herself, both in her moral life and beyond.
Even though she lives halfway across the world, Haya is still affected when Westerners and Western media associate her religion, which is practiced by over 1.6 billion people worldwide, with the Islamic extremist group, ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). ISIS seeks to create an Islamic state caliphate in Iraq and Syria. They aim to implement a strict interpretation of Sharia Law, which is a set of beliefs that guide the lives of Muslims, in order to create a society that resembles that of the religion’s past. ISIS is known for their mass killings of innocent people.
For the past several years, the United States and allies has been focused on stopping the spread of ISIS in the Middle East. They have been conducting airstrikes, working with Syrian rebels, and have Special Operations forces in the Middle East.
Haya says, “it crushes you because you know that you’re not just your religion, you’re more than that. You know that your religion and what you believe in does not stand for killing innocent people, for raping women, and for abducting children.”
Zaed Karabatek (‘19) is a sophomore at Collegiate School. He was born in Damascus, Syria and moved to the United States when he was four. He says, “I take pride in Islam. It sets me apart from everyone else, not just at Collegiate, but in the United States.”
When he first moved to America, he says that everyone was very welcoming to his family. Zaed is one of only a handful Muslim students at Collegiate, but he articulated how accepting Collegiate has been of his differences since he came in seventh grade. He says, “the Collegiate community has brought me in like [somebody] who would believe in any other religion.”
Although Collegiate has been accepting of Zaed, he still feels like “some people don’t understand.” Take the phrase Allahu Akbar, meaning “God is greatest.” Zaed says he hears people yelling it “as a joke.” He says that he thinks people use it as a “war cry” and don’t understand its true meaning.
“My family and I use it before we are going to do something challenging,” he says. Being one of the few Muslims at Collegiate, Zaed doesn’t feel like people are educated enough to understand that Allahu Akbar is very different than a war cry, and he singlehandedly cannot change that misconception within our school community.
Zaed’s brother Mohammed graduated from Collegiate in 2015. He delivered his senior speech to the Upper School on what it means to him to be a Muslim in America.
Huda Alsamman, a senior at Tucker High School, also practices Islam. She says that, unlike Collegiate, there are many Muslim students at Tucker, and that they have formed a Muslim Student Association. She wears a hijab head covering as a part of her religious beliefs. “Islam is a lifestyle for me. It’s not a chore that I have to tend to on certain days. I practice it every day, and it is the building block of my identity,” Huda remarks.
She doesn’t feel like she is treated any differently in the community or at school, so much that “[she] generally forget[s] that [she’s] dressed differently than others.” “Discrimination is a rare occurrence for me,” she explained.
This past year leading up to the election on November 8 was culturally unprecedented. The two leading candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, both garnered unwavering support and relentless hate. This election season specifically saw much attention at the party conventions over the summer. Both parties had many speakers share with the nation, but one in particular got more attention than many others.
Khizr Khan and his wife, Ghazala Khan, spoke on July 28 at the 2016 Democratic National Convention about their son, US Army Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004. Khizr Khan addressed the commitment and loyalty they feel for the United States, saying they are “patriotic American Muslims with undivided loyalty to our country.”
Khan continued, shaming Trump for his attitude towards Muslim Americans, saying, “Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims. He disrespects other minorities — women, judges, even his own party leadership. He vows to build walls and ban us from this country.”
The speech sparked a debate about the nature of showing patriotism, but the underlying message of Khan’s speech was clear: despite the media’s portrayal and many Americans’ beliefs, not all Muslims are terrorists.
Haya, Zaed, and Huda all echoed this sentiment when I spoke with them.
Zaed says, “I feel like Islam is being portrayed [in the media] in a negative manner… We are being frightened by Donald Trump, and being shown that Islam is a religion of war, not peace.”
Haya shared a similar feeling, adding that “on a personal level, it has affected me many times. Not just in the West, but also in [Lebanon].”
Huda says, “I wish people would understand that Islam promotes peace and friendship, and regards them as essential characteristics of faithfulness. Not only this, Islam is not equivalent to Arab culture; contrary to Arab norms, Islam regards gender equality highly, and recognizes that society is constantly changing. Islam is not intended to be difficult to follow.”
Throughout all of these comments, there is a common thread of needing education in order to gain understanding.
In reaction to hearing about cases of anti-Muslim perceptions, Director of Responsible Citizenship and Strategic Planning at Collegiate, Clare Sisisky, spoke to the problem as a national issue: “We have a different obligation [in the United States] to make a commitment to religious freedom, even when it is difficult… because this is part of our identity.” She cited the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the 1st amendment as the founding principles that Americans should consider in this new context.
Sisisky believes that Islamophobia in America is a “generational issue.” She argues that more human connections and relationships will help get rid of the stereotypes, saying, “I think that relationships will move people’s experience to say, ‘Okay, yes I see an extremist terrorist on the TV who’s Muslim, but I also know my [Muslim] colleague, who is a good person, who I respect.’”
Recent Pew Research information estimates that there are about 3.3 million Muslims living in America, making up 1% of the population.
Another Pew poll from March 2016 shows that one third of Americans want more heightened surveillance on Muslim citizens, simply because of their faith.
Even more troubling still, a Quinnipiac poll from 2015 found that 28% of all Americans, and 47% of Republicans, believe mainstream Islam promotes violence.
America’s anti-Muslim prejudice might not seem significant to our daily lives on North Mooreland Road, but it is real. Zaed says that the fact that Americans associate Islam and ISIS “saddens [him].” “People look at me differently, because every time I say, ‘Yeah, I’m from Syria’ or ‘Yeah, I’m a Muslim,’ people look at me like, ‘Oh, he might be a terrorist.’”
As a part of the International Emerging Leaders Conference this fall, there was a community forum on Terrorism and the Media, where several international students sat on a panel and discussed how aspects of the topic affect them.
During both of the forums, a few of the students on the panel were Muslim. Each time, these students stressed need for separation between ISIS and Islam.
The students on the panel highlighted the fact that the majority of the people that ISIS kills are, in fact, fellow Muslims, and that ISIS is not Muslim to them.
They also emphasized the importance of education. 15-year old Lebanese student Bylasan Ahmad, a classmate of Haya Ghandour, said, “it is everyone’s responsibility to help understand each other better – Muslims and non-Muslims around the world. This can help overcome ISIS.”
In a video by The Atlantic, comedian Maz Jobrani describes an encounter he had with a six-year-old boy in a movie theater bathroom. After seeing a Sikh wearing a head turban, this boy turned to Jobrani and said, “That guy was ISIS!”
This boy was only six, but he represents the problems of perception in our nation.
When asked how to address this problem of this misunderstanding, everybody’s answer pointed to the same thing: education.
Huda shared that she thinks “Americans are barely educated about Islam.”
Haya believes that everyone has a role to play in educating others. By educating others, people are “setting the example of trying to guide them to see the truth.” It’s not as easy as it may sound, though. “People get uncomfortable when something different is said to them. They get confused as what to believe,” Haya notes.
Building off of what the students at the forum discussed, Zaed pointed out that “ISIS mainly kills Muslims.” He believes that being more educated on the subject will lead to a better understanding of what’s going on. “ISIS is radical islam. [They] are not Muslim to me.”
Sisisky spoke to what Collegiate is doing to teach religious understanding and tolerance. In the Middle School, the world religions curriculum begins in 5th grade and includes field trips to different places of worship around Richmond. There is also a world religion assembly series that focuses on a certain theme, like prayer or pilgrimage. In the Upper School, the required world religion class gives Upper Schoolers what Sisisky considers “basic religious literacy.”
Brian Justice (’85) is an Upper School history and religion teacher at Collegiate. He also believes education is the key to understanding, saying “I take the view of Thomas Jefferson: more education, not less education.”
For Justice, when Islam is misportrayed in the media or when people make assumptions about Muslims, he feels “[motivated] to want to engage in education and discussion and dialogue to bring to light facts and truths about the situation.”
Justice also believes that it isn’t fair to associate ISIS and Islam. “Terrible things are done in the name of Islam by people that don’t represent Islam well or aren’t Muslim at all,” he comments. He made an analogy, saying that associating ISIS and Islam would be like associating the KKK or the Westboro Baptist Church with Christianity as a whole.
Although there are still many obstacles to overcome, progress is being made to combat anti-Muslim prejudices. Last year, the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities organized an event called Standing Together, which Sisisky described as an “interfaith gathering.” Participants were people of all different religious backgrounds, like priests, ministers, and rabbis, and they stood with the Muslim community at the Islamic Center of Virginia. More than 600 people showed up for the second meeting to unite with the similar goal of “[supporting] the values of religious freedom.”
On Tuesday, November 8, the news of Donald Trump’s election shocked the world. At around 12:45 a.m. on Wednesday morning, as polls began to indicate that Trump would win, CNN contributor Van Jones shared with the country, “I have Muslim friends texting me tonight saying, ‘Should I leave the country?’”
This shock and fear was also felt by Huda and Zaed.
Huda shared, “Initially I was terrified… I have already heard of a few Muslim parents telling their daughters to remove their hijabs for the sake of safety, but I don’t share this mindset. I’d rather die embracing what I believe in than walking around uncomfortable in my own skin. As a Muslim woman, I hope that Trump’s presidency will not affect the mindset of other Muslim girls and how they behave in society.” Although she respects those who have chosen to remove their hijabs, Huda has personally chosen not to remove hers.
Zaed said, “I hope that mine and other Muslims’ lives are not declared lesser than others due to our religious beliefs.”
In a Washington Post article published the morning of November 9, human rights lawyer and writer Arsalan Iftikhar wrote about his reactions to the election results as a Muslim man. He expressed his disappointment, given Trump’s Islamophobic tendencies during his campaign and the things he has said about Muslims and immigrants.
More importantly though, he laid out a plan for going forward, saying, “we shouldn’t let our shock or despair paralyze us. In fact, now more than ever it is a civic duty and moral imperative for Hispanics, women, Muslims and every other minority group in America to mobilize together to neutralize the effect of Trump’s rise on our great nation.”
Huda shared this same mindset, saying, “rather than protest Trump, I will simply unite with other minorities to prevent division.”
As Haya said during our conversation, understanding Islam is about everybody coming together to work towards a more educated future.
Huda hopes that people will understand that her religion is about peace and friendship.
Zaed concluded our interview by saying, “I like to say that I am from Damascus, Syria, and I am Muslim, but I’m proud of that. I’m proud of my heritage, I’m proud of everything that my mom has taught me, and that not every Muslim is a terrorist.”
Each person’s story is their own, but they are a part of the larger picture of Islam in America.