Motala: Learn about Islam and Muslims

“An American Muslim Learns to Fly — into buildings.”

Phrases like this one, found scribbled on an Islamic Awareness Week (IAW) flyer, aren’t uncommon in post-September 11 America. But at a place like Yale, where tolerance and political correctness generally reign, I find this declaration particularly shocking.

It’s not that I have never encountered intolerance of my religion or aversion to the color of my skin, but I found the statement carelessly scrawled on the IAW flyer particularly troubling because it occurred at the first American institution which to awarded a Ph.D, a university that preaches academic exploration and intellectual awakening. I didn’t expect miseducation and ignorance to extend to the hallowed halls of this Ivy League school.

The majority of Yalies have been warm and understanding. From my six suitemates to members of Yale University Dining Services, the people I have met here have been open and inquisitive about my religious practices.

But I have been surprised by the dearth of knowledge about everyday Muslims in the Yale community. While some of us can explain the intricacies of Islamic politics worldwide, and others are nearly fluent in Arabic, I have come across very few who understand Islam in its everyday context. Perhaps it is because I went to a diverse high school, where hijaabis numbered in the double digits (whereas Yale has only four scarved undergraduates), but I find this specific ignorance astounding.

I don’t believe that the Yale community chooses to be unconscious of its Muslim compatriots; instead, many of us are afraid to ask questions. From my own experience, the most intriguing questions I hear from my friends begin: “This may be a stupid question, but…”

I’ll be honest: I want to hear more stupid questions. They’re the ones that aren’t answered by Wikipedia or an Intro to Islam class. Ask me about Islam’s take on women’s rights or jihad or the Taliban and I’ll tell you. Or ask me about Islam’s take on alcohol or sex or homosexuality and I’ll tell you that, too. I’d rather set the record straight than accept your strange misconceptions about what I do. (Yes, I actually chose to wear this thing on my head and yes, being sober at your party can be rather painful.) But, please, ask away.

Why should we care? What should compel the average art major or hockey player to ask questions or learn more about Islam? What makes Muslims different from any other marginalized minority?

The reality of a post-September 11 world is that buzzwords like “jihad” have become household terms. But before we can discuss O’Reilly’s position on martyrdom in Islam or America’s policies in the Middle East, we need to ensure that we have an accurate understanding of these concepts. Jihad, for those who don’t know, does not mean “holy war,” as most may recognize it; rather, it means “struggle,” and does not have a strictly violent connotation.

As students of a premier educational institution, particularly one that produces world leaders and heads of state, we owe it to ourselves to learn. Because if we don’t, who will? How can we complain that 36 percent of the American public hasn’t heard enough to form an impression about Islam, as a 2006 CBS News Poll found, if we can’t distinguish between a scarved South African Muslim woman and an orthodox Jewish woman? (This confusion, believe it or not, happened to me last week.)

It’s up to us, then, to take advantage of the plethora of outside-the-classroom educational opportunities this campus has to offer, such as this week’s IAW lineup. Events such as these are invaluable to the community. They fill a void of communication between oft-stereotyped groups — whether they are LGBT, African-American or Muslim – and the wider Yale community.

As a wise president once said, “Our patchwork heritage is strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.”

Let us embrace this diversity, here on campus, before we move on to the greater community. Let us live up to the foundational tolerance of this institution. For God, for country and for Yale.

Tasnim Motala is a freshman in Morse College and a member of the Islamic Awareness Week Council

of the Muslim Students Association.

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