By Taylor Isenberg
Americans’ perceptions of Islam are varied with negative viewpoints about the religion often narrowed to simplistic, antagonistic memes shared via social media that hold little to no context or value.
To overcome these stereotypes and to provide deeper insight, Rochester University’s Christian Muslim Interactions class seeks to help students develop a more thorough understanding of the Islamic faith.
To begin with, Christianity, Islam and Judaism all worship the God of Abraham and claim descent from the ancient Israelites. Parts of the Bible are drawn from the Torah, and parts of the Quran uphold events and ideology of both texts.
Dr. Anne Nichols, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, was intrigued by this when she traveled to Turkey with RU in 2012. “I had the opportunity to talk to many Muslims about their faith. What surprised me most was how everyone I talked to used the term ‘God,’ ” she said. “I had an assumption that ‘Christians believe in God, and Muslims believe in Allah.’ Hearing Muslims consistently use the term ‘God’ made me realize that we have a lot more in common than I previously thought. Muslims and Christians have different beliefs about the nature of God and Jesus, but we worship the same God.”
Not everyone can travel to Turkey like Nichols did, but RU students can learn more about Islam by taking the Christian Muslim Interactions class, which is team-taught by Dr. Keith Huey, RU professor of religion, and Dr. Saaed Kahn, a global studies professor at Wayne State University who is Muslim.
Huey believes being around people of different faiths can be beneficial in three main ways.
First, the interaction can help someone see another person’s humanity. “We discuss basic issues and discuss those in a humble way,” he said. “I want students to leave with memories of time spent with Muslims, learning that they are humans just like us.”
Second, the study can help improve a person’s own faith. “This class’ goal is to make Christians better Christians,” Kahn said.
Huey agrees: “When interfaith dialogue is done properly, Christians can learn a great deal about their own convictions. It forces me to reevaluate what I believe and helps me think through new ways of viewing my beliefs.”
Third, hearing the perspectives of both professors and providing open dialogue about the differences and similarities between the two faiths can help students combat the misperceptions that have evolved from the media and in Western society.
Both Kahn and Huey agree that they are not trying to convert each other, but that they are pursuing open-minded dialogue to improve each other’s and students’ faith.
A study done by the Pew Research Center in 2017 found that 1.6 billion people practice Islam, making it the second largest religion behind Christianity. In recent decades, the United States’ international relations with Middle Eastern countries have been weakened by the threat of extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Following the 9/11 attacks and the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, a stereotype has emerged that those who practice Islam are terrorists or have ties to terrorist groups.
These events have caused many Americans to lump all Muslims into one group. According to the Anti-Defamation League, an anti-hate organization headquartered in Washington D.C., “There are people who sincerely view themselves as Muslim who have committed horrible acts in the name of Islam. These people, and their interpretation of Islam, is rightly called ‘extremist;’ they are a minority within Islam and the vast majority of Muslims reject their violence and consider their interpretation a distortion of the Muslim faith.”
Images of extremists are usually what Americans view on TV and in social media, creating a fear of the religion, especially for those who don’t live in communities with a large Muslim population. According to an article in “The Chronicle,” Duke University’s independent student media, 80% of media portrayals of Muslims is negative.
The Anti-Defamation League defined this stereotyping as Islamophobia, “the fear, hatred and discrimination of Muslim people.”
According to the 2017 Pew study, 45% of Americans surveyed said they believe that Muslims living in the United States are anti-American and cause a threat to society.
This perception of all Muslims as terrorists has also affected the way that they are being treated. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, over 10,000 incidents of anti-Muslim bias have been recorded in the U.S. since 2014. These incidents range from harassment, after-employment discrimination, hate crimes and denial of religious accommodations.
This has hit close to Rochester, too. Dearborn, Michigan, which is about 45 minutes from RU’s campus, has the largest Islamic community outside of the Middle East. Almost half of the population in Dearborn practices Islam, with about 94,000 people living in its city limits. Restaurants, bakeries, retail shops, grocery stores and community centers bring Middle Eastern traditions to the Metro Detroit region. Billboards lining the interstate and main roads in Dearborn are written in Arabic as well.
Dearborn is also home to the Islamic Center of America, which is the largest mosque in North America. Just days after taking office, President Donald Trump issued a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. This ban and other rhetoric encouraged individuals to protest outside the mosque. They were protesting the mosque’s existence and the people who worship there. Another anti-Muslim incident occurred in 2018 when a man attacked a woman wearing a burka in a Dearborn emergency room. And in 2015, after the Paris terrorist attacks, a Michigan woman made threats against all of Dearborn on social media. She wrote: “Dearborn, MI, has the highest Muslim population in the United Sates [sic]. Let’s f*** that place up and send a message to ISIS. We’re coming,” she wrote. Police investigated, and the woman later apologized.
These incidents and many others show why education about people’s faiths and interaction with others of different faiths is so important.
In 2015, Dave Hutson, associate professor of sports management, traveled to Turkey, where 68% of the population is Muslim.
“In a post 9/11 world, we as Westerners have created a stigma that all Muslims are terrorists, which is not true. The majority of Muslims I have encountered want peace, just like I do. What’s happened is that we’ve let a handful of radical Muslims create a stereotype,” Hutson said. “If we don’t understand something, we become afraid of it. Basically, ignorance breeds intolerance.”
In fact, many Muslim Americans are most likely on the front line of promoting peace. A report done by the Muslim Public Affairs Council said, “The Muslim-American community has helped security and law enforcement officials prevent nearly two of every five al Queda terrorist plots threatening the United States.”
The majority of Muslim-Americans are peace-loving, America-loving individuals. They take their kids to school, they follow sports, and they go to the grocery store. And their faith isn’t too far off from the same principles and values that make up the Christian faith, such as giving to those in need, devoting time to prayer, and living a good life.
Classes like RU’s Christian Muslim Interactions and opportunities to converse with people of other faiths are important. Let’s continue talking to one another, learning from each other and seeking peace in our world.