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We Are Not Terrorists: Muslim Experiences on Campus

Farima represents Afghanistan at a school event
Farima represents Afghanistan at a school event

Last week I shared a message that I received on Facebook:
I hope American people wouldn't bother it at all for a moeslim girl like me study and live in their neighbourhood :)

It inspired us to look at stereotypes and how American classmates react to foreign students. Our bloggers said they have had positive experiences, and that Americans who don't know much about their countries are more likely to be curious than judgmental. But we wanted to look deeper at what it's like for Muslims students who come to the U.S. Is Islamophobia real, and will you experience it?

We are not terrorists

Our reporter Suzanne Presto spoke this month to a group of students who had just arrived in the U.S. from Pakistan as part of the UGRAD exchange program, and many of them talked about their desire to prove to Americans that Pakistanis and Muslims are not terrorists.

Muhammad Aslam told her he had read in the media about controversy over building a mosque near Ground Zero and the rise of Islamophobia in America. “We have been labeled as terrorists and aggressive people, but we are not like that,” Muhammad said.

According to Meena Malik, a Muslim American and sophomore at the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine), this misconception does exist, but it comes in waves, ignited by media coverage of certain events:
I feel like in general there are different cycles where there are some things that come out and then people start getting really scared. In terms of the media, whether it was the Park 51 mosque or 'Burn a Koran day', or last year there was the Christmas underwear bomber, there’s been different things that happen and people start getting a little scared or nervous and there are media frenzies.

When I spoke to Meena, she had just attended the Muslim Student Association West conference, where over 1,000 Muslim students from California gathered to discuss the way Muslims are viewed in America, and to unite behind the theme of the conference, "Taking Back our Narrative."

"In general I’m thinking, I’m hoping, there’s a trend where Muslims are being portrayed in a more positive light and where Muslims themselves are being more vocal in saying, ‘No, this is not how it is,'" she said.

Two experiences:

Umer Sultan and Beenish Akhtar are two students who have recently changed their appearance in a way that makes them more easily identifiable as Muslims. They discussed how they have been perceived since making the change, and how they believe Muslims are viewed in America.

1) Umer, Eastern Michigan University - Growing a beard

Umer Sultan, who was born in Pakistan and came to America in high school, said that since moving to the U.S. he has sought to stay tied to his faith, and he recently decided to grow a beard in accordance with the commandments of Islam. He described on his blog how classmates reacted to his new appearance:

I really like when people are eager to learn and they ask me questions. So I was happy that people were asking me questions that they would not ask such questions before but there were some others who resort to passing out judgement.

One such judgement among others was that my brother looks like a “Mini bin Laden.” This came to me shocking, I have heard the word “Terrorist” before but never thought that some people would actually compare us with Bin Laden [sic].

But Umer told me that most Americans don’t react that way. “It’s more on media. People are nice. In general people are nice, there are just one or two people here or there who might give you trouble. But that should not make you disheartened or anything. ‘Cause there are other Americans who are supportive and who are very nice.”

He added:

You do feel like, with all the things going on, rightly or wrongly, you do feel like some people, not all, but some people are viewing you like that. But that’s just like – if it’s a totally white neighborhood and a black guy goes into that neighborhood, people are going to stare at him in a cautious manner or something. Because they never saw an African-American guy walk through the town.

2) Beenish, George Mason University - Putting on the hijab

Beenish Akhtar, a senior at George Mason University in Virginia, chose to start wearing the hijab in the summer of 2002, the summer after the 9/11 attacks, as part of her personal journey to discover Islam.

Beenish said of wearing the hijab on campus:

I’ve gotten a few comments like, ‘you don’t need to wear that here,’ or ‘do you wear that in the shower?’ and these really silly things. It’s difficult because I like the hijab and I chose to wear it.

[Read: Dispelling Myths About Hijab, Daily Prayers, and Other Practicalities of Muslim Life on Campus]

She said that she feels media portrayals of Muslims have worsened this year, adding that she's felt more cautious lately than even after 9/11. “It’s funny because recently, this past year is when I’ve really been feeling the heat cause I feel like all the propaganda going against us is finally adding up. And now, whereas I wouldn’t have felt so strange praying outside in 2006, now I feel kind of shady.”

But Beenish also told me she has never experienced anything to make her feel scared of being a Muslim or wearing hijab:

My mom, she was so against it because she was afraid. She didn’t want people harassing me or anything like that. But beside a few stares or a few glares every now and then I didn’t really feel targeted.

If you 're interested in the experience of women who wear the niqab, take a look at this New York Times piece, in which a reporter follows several young women who choose to cover their faces.

Typical student reactions

Our friends at VOA Urdu visited the campus of George Washington University earlier this year to talk to some average American students about how they view Muslims:

The reaction Farima, who is from Afghanistan, has encountered most often from non-Muslim classmates at her high school is curiosity:
I have been the only Muslim girl to wear a hijab at Kent School, which makes me different from every other student. Therefore, my friends, the faculty members, and the school staff have asked me the reason for wearing it, and I have always appreciated their curiosity and have been happy to answer their questions.

And the new arrivals in the UGRAD program said they have been pleasantly surprised with the way Americans have treated them so far.

“I am here from just two days and I am getting very good response. No one is asking me, ‘are you Muslim or not,’ or anything like that. And if they are asking from which country you are and when I am telling them that I am from Pakistan they are very surprised and giving very respect and they are appreciating me,” said Ahsan Mir Rajper.

Said fellow participant Muhammad Israr, "There are only two kinds of people which you will find in every corner of the world, in every society, in every country. That is good and bad. It exists everywhere, and last night I found this true.”

Beenish agreed. She told me that students shouldn’t be more concerned about coming to America than of going anywhere else: “There are bad people everywhere. You can’t hide from it, you can’t control what’s going to happen to you really.”

For more on what it's like to be a Muslim on campus, take a look at our companion post on the practicalities of observing Islam as a student in the U.S.