Nine years and 10 days ago, Cafer Orman (GPPI ’10) was at Stockton College in Pomona, N.J. He had settled into his dorm room, finished orientation and had just started classes; he had just begun his college experience in earnest when 18 terrorists unleashed a day of violence and terror on the United States.
Like Orman, those 18 men were Muslim, albeit from a very different strand of the faith; unlike Orman, they were not Americans.
In the weeks after Sept. 11, someone broke into the Muslim prayer room on Stockton’s campus, defecated and urinated on the floor, and tore everything down, breaking half of the books and artwork inside.
Today, that same sort of targeted hostility continues to haunt American Muslims. A Florida pastor planned and then cancelled a Quran burning this year on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Pundits and politicians have continued to debate the location and legality of the Park51 Islamic community center, dubbed the Ground Zero mosque. In August, a man was convicted of stabbing a New York City taxi driver simply because the driver was Muslim.
According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 49 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam and about one-third believe that mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims. Twenty-six percent admit to feelings of prejudice against Muslims.
For Muslim students, faculty and staff at Georgetown, those numbers translate into a complex reality that they experience firsthand each day. Over the past week, THE HOYA sat down with representatives of the university’s Muslim community, discussing their thoughts and sentiments as residents in post-9/11 America. These faculty members and students described a mix of contentment and occasional fear, sometimes satisfaction but almost unanimously frustration with the way they are treated and perceived.
uslim Chaplaincy Director Imam Yahya Hendi connected the public and political events to the personal struggle of Muslim students.
“People are afraid – afraid of what could happen, afraid of the unexpected – and the feeling itself is really destructive,” he said.
Rehana Mohammed (SFS ’12) addressed the resulting prejudice in an interview.
“We have a widespread, deep-seated problem of racism and bigotry that has been normalized and in some cases embraced by our media and our politicians to the extent that now it’s almost the `cool’ thing to do,” Mohammed said.
She went on to describe what she perceives to be an American mentality in which everything Muslim is bad. She says that this encourages `good’ Americans to speak out against Islam.
emories of prejudice can be searing, and many members of the Islamic community remember the circumstances years afterward. Ayesha Ibrahim (NHS ’13) recalled having to pick up her bus ticket separately from the rest of her class for a high school trip. Mohammed recalled the moment when airport security broke at least four presents from her mother when she was traveling in December 2001.
For Noreen Shaikh (COL ’12), president of the Muslim Student Association, the problem is more religious. She is troubled by what she considers to be the smearing of her beloved faith in the media.
“National events and attitudes can tend to be hostile,” she said, “so it is painful to see a religion you know as peaceful and loving portrayed as something different.”
Professor John Esposito, the founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, tried to explain these Islamophobic sentiments.
“We have significant numbers of Americans who cannot separate out the terrorists from the mainstream movement of Islam,” he said. “All this points to a real problem in our society, a social cancer that is spreading, becoming increasingly more significant, and moving into an area of hate speech and, in some cases, hate action.”
Other scholars think the issue of prejudice is hardly new but certainly not permanent. Professor Jonathan Brown (COL ’00) of the SFS stressed how routine this type of backlash is against a minority in American history.
“What’s so disappointing is how unoriginal the accusations are [and] the story is,” Brown said. “This has happened over and over again to various racial and religious groups.”
Jeff Morshed (SFS ’11) painted the picture in broader terms.
“It seems to be an issue more of what it means to be an American, what ideals we hold constitutionally, and how we practice our civic duties and live our lives,” he told THE HOYA.
“I am no less a Muslim than any other Muslim by virtue of being an American and no less American than any other American by virtue of being a Muslim – I just don’t see those two being incompatible,” Morshed said.
Despite these memories of prejudice, Muslim students and faculty members say they feel comfortable at Georgetown for the most part.
“Georgetown University is a place where Muslims can feel at home,” said Imam Hendi, “a place of accommodation to have a Muslim chaplain, a Muslim prayer room and the president hosting an iftar for Ramadan.”
Shaikh echoed Imam Hendi’s sentiments.
“Say what you will about diversity on Georgetown’s campus, but as a Muslim I have never felt singled out or put in the spotlight.”
Shaikh also said she appreciated the “groups and departments that take the time to realize the gap between the truth [about Islam] and what is said.”
While Mohammed also said she felt supported by the administration, she discussed incidents of discrimination by other students and feeling misunderstood on a daily basis.
“It’s alienating,” Mohammed said. “It’s caused me to be very pessimistic and mistrusting when I meet new people because it’s very hard to assume the best when experience has taught you to expect the worst.”
Nevertheless, according to Brown, Georgetown is an ideal place for dialogue about the gap between the truth about Islam and the way it is perceived to begin.
“Universities, in a way, are shielded from the uglier parts of these controversies because they are a place for dialogue and reflection where people are educated,” he said. “People might disagree, but all of us must be committed to being able to talk about that in a civil way and making sure that other members of the university community feel welcome.”