Opening Eyes and Minds: As Americans' Perceptions of Islam Grow Increasingly Negative, Muslim Students and Professors Find Themselves Educating Their College Communities

Article excerpt

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. …

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