UCSD MSA discusses how it’s time to analyze the negative stereotypes and misconceptions that further the discrimination often faced by Muslims.
In today’s post-9/11 world, Islam is often misunderstood. Negative stereotypes having nothing to do with the religion continue to persist, and discrimination against Muslims in the U.S. has increased since the 2016 election. As this bias against and fear of Muslims becomes deeper ingrained into mainstream American culture, it is more important than ever to address the problems Muslims face and why they exist in the first place.
As a national nonprofit organization that focuses on promoting unified Muslim communities for students on college campuses, the Muslim Student Association works to do just that. According to its website, the MSA “strives to facilitate networking, educating, and empowering the students of today to be citizens of tomorrow’s community.” Its list of guiding principles includes phrases such as “love is our highest aspiration” and “tolerance is the banner of our outreach.”
“This is a community that holistically caters to as many Muslim students as possible,” explained Thurgood Marshall College junior Shafeen Pittal, the vice president of the MSA at UC San Diego, who is majoring in political science. “We are trying to institutionalize the Muslim student experience on campus, whether that’s by reaching out to the administration and asking for resources we may need, or having events that may provide spiritual, academic, or social help, or just making sure that the Muslim students have a support system and community on campus.”
Some MSA events include the annual Justice in Palestine Week, which informs the UCSD community about Israeli occupation and the Palestinian experience, and Islam Awareness Week, which educates students about Islam. The MSA also fights for social justice by organizing protests and other solidarity demonstrations.
It has membership of Muslims with backgrounds from all over the world. Muslims practice Islam, a worldwide religion that teaches monotheism and adherence to the Qur’an and Sunnah, the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. The term “Muslim” is not a synonym for “Arab” or “Middle Eastern” (a concept often misunderstood), and not all Arabs are Muslims. In fact, many people living in the Middle East actually practice other religions such as Christianity or Judaism. And just like Christianity and Judaism, Islam is also practiced worldwide. There are African Muslims, Asian Muslims, Pakistani Muslims, and Indian Muslims, for example, and the MSA reflects this diversity.
“There are lots of ways for us to unite, and we don’t get into politics,” Pittal said. “It’s just a community for anyone who feels comfortable in that space.”
The MSA offers a safe space for one of the most marginalized religious minorities in the United States. Now more than ever, Muslims are falsely associated with radical extremists who routinely abuse the name of the religion for personal gain. America is quick to scapegoat Muslims for terrorist attacks even though most acts of domestic terror have actually been carried out by white nationalists with no ties to Islam. President Donald Trump himself perpetuates these harmful stereotypes, famously declaring “I think Islam hates us” during a 2016 CNN interview with Anderson Cooper, and instituting the Muslim Ban last year, which involved suspending the Syrian refugee program and banning entry from several Muslim-majority countries, resulting in confusion and despair among many families, including U.S. citizens.
“All of these ideologies were prominent even before the Trump administration came into power,” Pittal said in reference to racism and Islamophobia. “They’ve always been in America — they’ve been a part of our country’s make-up for so long — but now they’ve been given legitimacy because of President Trump. And that’s the problem.”
She believes this harmful stereotype of Muslims as terrorists is perpetuated by negative portrayals of Muslims in the news and in other forms of media. The lack of diversity in newsrooms and in the media industry overall prevents important stories and perspectives of minority groups from being shared. This absence of awareness can lead to the spread of harmful misconceptions, which develop into deeply ingrained, and often unconscious, biases against minorities.
“The media is fueling [Islamophobia],” Pittal said. “It’s a very complicated platform to look at. But if you look at any culture, any religion, there are always those people who use that religion to advance their own interests that have nothing to do with the religion or the culture. There [are] Hindu extremists, there [are] Buddhist extremists, but those religions aren’t dealing with the same characterizations that a lot of Muslims are. So, I think it’s really important to think why we’re scapegoating Muslims. We need to analyze how this is translating to biases in the way we think and deal with certain groups and work on recreating these frameworks with more inclusive, educated rhetoric and mindsets.”
For example, many people often misinterpret the Islamic principle of “jihad” as “holy war” because they have only heard it in the negative — and false — context of extremists using it to justify their violence. “Jihad” is neither a declaration of war nor an act of violence. It actually means “struggle,” which according to the Qur’an, means striving to be a better person and a better Muslim.
Such misconceptions have harmed the broader Muslim population. Innocent people are the victims of deadly assaults and hate crimes by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But a fact usually overlooked is that most of the people killed in terrorist attacks are actually Muslim, and most Muslims are vocally opposed to ISIS and other terrorist groups.
“At the end of the day, they’re not Muslim,” Pittal declared, explicitly distinguishing radical extremists from Muslims. “I can’t even make that association because there is no connection. Those people are taking my religion and giving it a false name, giving it a false image in the country, in the world. Why do they have the platform for 1.7 billion Muslim people?”
Extremism isn’t the only stereotype that has been assigned to Islam. Additional debates concerning Muslim women who wear the hijab, or headscarf, are abundant, and the meaning of the hijab is a highly contested topic.
“Islamically, women are commanded to cover by God,” Pittal explained. “So are men. So both women and men are asked to cover and lower their gazes and engage in a lifestyle of modesty and God-consciousness. But the covering for women and men is different. Men have to cover from their navel to their knee, and women have to cover everything except their hands and their feet and their face.”
However, in some cases, the aspect of a Muslim woman covering herself has become a political conversation. This is because external factors such as governments, cultural influences, and heightened Islamophobic environments have made it so. The hijab continues to receive severe backlash, especially in America — the land ironically known for its freedom of religion.
According to a 2016 report done by the Council of American-Islamic Relations, the hijab is one of the top five triggers of anti-Muslim bias incidents. A 17-year-old Muslim girl in a hijab, Nabra Hassanen, was beaten to death by a man with a baseball bat last summer. The police refused to describe the incident as a hate crime even though part of the reason why Hassanen was murdered was because her hijab made her a visible Muslim.
With women who wear the hijab experiencing so many hate crimes, it is necessary to question why the hijab is perceived so negatively. Although these negative opinions can produce consequences ranging from microaggressions to hate crimes, they remain severely problematic no matter the scale of the bias, and many people are unaware that they’re contributing to the problem. In fact, much of the criticism Muslim women receive is actually from feminists who are supposed to be their allies.
“At the end of the day, they’re not Muslim. I can’t even make that association because there is no connection. Those people are taking my religion and giving it a false name, giving it a false image in the country, in the world. Why do they have the platform for 1.7 billion Muslim people?”
As an ideology, feminism holds that all women have freedom to dress or think as they choose. Yet many self-proclaimed feminists act against this idea by telling Muslim women that they are oppressed. As Pittal points out, “By telling me that my choice of covering is oppression when I am telling them otherwise, are they not the ones taking away my freedom to choose how I live my life and silencing my voice?”
For Pittal, who chose to start wearing a hijab in seventh grade, it has been an extremely meaningful experience.
“Whether that’s modesty, empowerment, or liberation, a hijab is this way that I wear my faith on my head and I’m reminded to constantly be God-conscious,” she said. “It has allowed me, personally, to be a lot more confident in myself. For me, the hijab has been a source of empowerment. It’s for no one, it’s not for any man, for any woman, it’s just simply in devotion to my creator and my religion. It’s an external manifestation of an internal state of being.”
Islam is a religion of peace that carries deep meaning for many people and Pittal encourages others to study Islam in order to understand the positive principles Muslims hold true.
“Regardless of what people think or believe,” Pittal said, “if they simply made an effort to study Islam from authentic sources, they themselves would realize its beauty that anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, can be inspired and moved by. There’s this underlying and remarkable theme of mercy, compassion, and love both by God [toward] His people, and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to his companions and followers. And this should be practiced by the followers of Islam. There’s this constant emphasis in Islam about working to be a better believer, a better person — not just as a creation of God, but [toward] other creations of God. It is this constant state of belief, this flickering foundational, beautiful faith, that is the light in my experience as a Muslim, in my existence as a human being, as Shafeen. ‘Light upon light’ is one of my favorite phrases from the Qur’an. So as we all engage on this campus, let us strive to beautify ourselves, each other, and our communities with light.”
Photo courtesy of UCSD MSA