Yale’s seventh annual “Islamic Awareness Week” kicked off Monday with talks by two individuals who have witnessed firsthand the perniciousness of anti-Islamic prejudice.
Riz Khan, reporter for the Arabic news network Al Jazeera, spoke about misperceptions of Muslims in the media. James Yee, a former Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay who was illegally detained for several months, and Brandon Mayfield, an attorney who was falsely accused of coordinating the 2004 Madrid bombings that killed 191 people, spoke about their experiences being unfairly targeted.
Muslim members of Yale’s community expressed hope that this year’s week of events, titled “Muslims in the 21st Century,” will help correct stereotypes many Americans harbor have regarding Islam.
“Because Islam has been in the media so much, a lot of people have a lot of misconceptions,” said Shamshad Sheikh, Yale’s Muslim chaplain. “This is one of the best ways to share our religious beliefs in the Yale community.”
This week’s events were designed to provide a forum to increase understanding of the political manifestations of Islam, members of the Muslim Students Association said.
Living in the West, American citizens are bombarded with images of Islamic extremists, and many associate 9/11 with this faith, said Khan, who said he has encountered this misunderstanding in his work.
“A lot of people misunderstand what Islam is about, especially now more than ever,” he said.
Khan, who spoke about Islam’s portrayal in the media during a talk at the Yale Center for British Art, said the “new enemy” for him is not North Korea, Iran or fundamentalist Muslims, but rather ignorance. He said he trusts the current generation to overcome the prejudices of the past and use the tools of mass communication available to them.
“You guys are the next generation,” Khan told the audience of about 70. “You don’t carry the baggage and prejudices of past generations. You live in a truly globally connected world.”
Khan broadcast an obesity-themed episode of his world-famous “Riz Khan” television show from Yale on Monday.
In the Law School, over 100 students came to listen to Yee and Mayfield discuss their detainee experiences.
Yee said his position as the Muslim chaplain allowed him to find out about the Guantanamo Bay prisoners’ numerous complaints about their American captors’ attitudes toward Islam.
“I was one of the few officers allowed to speak to the prisoners about religious issues,” Yee said. “They raised concerns about Korans being desecrated, being force-baptized by interrogators [dressed as Catholic bishops], and not being allowed to pray.”
Yee described how he implemented a policy in Guantanamo allowing the Muslim detainees to keep their Korans in places of honor by using surgical masks to hang the Korans from the highest point possible in the cells.
Yee was detained by the U.S. government on Sept. 10, 2003 and was not released until March 19, 2004. He left the army with an honorable discharge in January 2005.
Mayfield, who was also detained for several weeks in 2004 before it was revealed that the FBI had wrongfully linked him to the Madrid bombings, used his portion of the talk to criticize the administration of George W. Bush ’68.
“We’re living in Orwell’s ‘1984’ and making some small steps back towards Sept. 10, 2001,” Mayfield said.
After being released from prison on May 25, 2004, after 21 days in jail, Mayfield went to court against the U.S. government. In 2006, Mayfield settled with the government and received an apology, along with $2 million. On Sept. 26, 2007, District Court Judge Anne Aiken ruled in Mayfield’s favor against two parts of the Patriot Act, declaring that they were unconstitutional.
Despite Yee’s ill treatment by the government, the chaplain said he thinks that educating people about Islam could change their attitudes.
“Bringing a thorough and accurate understanding about Islam as a religion can improve our society with regards to religious freedom and diversity,” Yee said.
Students interviewed who attended the talks said they were valuable opportunities to hear from people who had actually experienced what they were discussing.
“We see this a lot in the news, but rarely do we personally see victims of our government’s policies,” Sameer Ahmed LAW ’09 said.
Others said they thought the talks provided balance to the sometimes negative portrayal of Muslims in the media.
“[Riz Khan] made the point that people should not judge too quickly,” Nicholas Selz ’11 said. “You need to avoid falling into stereotypes and give Al Jazeera a chance. Don’t just view it as the mouthpiece of Osama.”
Other events featured this week include panels on “Muslim Women in Business” and “Islam 101” and a comedy show entitled “One Jew, One Muslim, One Stage.” Islamic Awareness Week began at universities 14 years ago and has continued at colleges in North America and Europe ever since.