The diversity of students celebrating Islam Awareness Week reflected the core of the message the Muslim Students Association hoped to convey: Nothing can be generalized about Islam.
Over the last week, MSA hosted lectures and performances to dispel misconceptions about Islam. Irem Bilgic, SEAS ’12 and president of MSA, said he hoped the week would “inform people about the different backgrounds individuals bring to their faith.”
“A certain culture can not really represent all Muslim cultures because there are a lot of differences among Muslims themselves,” Bilgic, who is Muslim and of Turkic descent, said.
A common thread to the events over the last week was a call to action for those within the Muslim community to educate those who do not understand that Muslims come from a variety of backgrounds.
Alay Syed, BC ’15 and an organizational committee member of MSA, recalled being subject to verbal abuse from patrons of her family-owned store on Staten Island in the wake of 9/11.
Her sister was often yelled at for wearing her hijab, she said. Classmates blamed her. “People started asking me, ‘Why did you do it?’” she said. “And I’m like, ‘I didn’t do anything.’”
At Monday’s event, “The Muslim Next Door,” panelists addressed assumptions and generalizations often made about Islam. Anthropology professor Lila Abu-Lughod criticized what she described as an increasingly popular genre of writing in which Muslim women are portrayed as helpless property, putting Muslim men in a bad light. Many of these books, she said, portray events that did not happen.
“You have to ask, ‘What does this do?’ These books are sold to millions. It’s creating an emotional bedrock about Muslim women and how they are treated,” Abu-Lughod said. “These books, these representations, define views and structure feelings about Muslim women and their rights.”
Wajahat Ali, author of “The Domestic Crusaders,” a book about the media’s influence on the American perception of Islam, spoke out against generalizing Muslims.
“I am not him and he is not me,” he said. “He does not represent all of my community.” Ali urged Muslims to “become participants, not spectators.”
Although 63 percent of Americans say they don’t know a Muslim person, according to Ali, Islam has a lower favorability now than it did immediately following 9/11. This has led to an increase in bullying that Ali said has become more sophisticated since he attended high school in the 1980s.
“The worst thing they ever called me was Ghandi,” Ali said.
Imam Khalid Latif, chaplain for the Islamic Center at New York University, spoke at Thursday’s “Colors of Islam” panel.
Addressing Muslims in the room, he said, “You represent a unique segment of our population. If you all sat down and put your minds together, I’m sure you could get people to understand that the Muslim community is not a hegemonic community.”
Still, there are some within the Muslim community who are uncomfortable with spreading more accurate knowledge about their faith.
When Nourah Alhassoun, a graduate student in SEAS, wears a necklace with a charm of the Qu’ran on it, she often hides it rather than face the inevitable irrationally angry response to it.
She has her doubts, though. “I get afraid,” she said. “But then I feel this is my religion, why should I hide it?”
MSA Vice President Maliha Tariq, BC ’13, hopes that Islam Awareness Week has been able to fuel discussion and give the campus more information about Islam than the media does. But she recognizes that the effort goes far beyond just holding a week of events.
“It’s going to be hard to get people who should be coming to these kinds of events to come, but we’re hoping that by just holding them we might pique curiosity in people who wouldn’t necessarily come,” Tariq said.