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Panel about Islam in America seeks to rectify misconceptions

The Middle East Students Association (MESA) and the Muslim Students Association (MSA) hosted a panel about Islam in America on Monday, Feb. 20 at 5 p.m. in Peirce Lounge. The panel consisted of Professor of Mathematics Nuh Aydin, Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion Professor Michael Knight and Zoe Ali ’19. The event was moderated by MESA Co-President Ghada Baqbouq ’19. 45 to 50 people attended the event.

Each panelist began with a meditation on what being Muslim in America means to them.

Ali, who is Persian and Pakistani, grew up in America and discussed the importance of her distinctly American relationship with her religion.

Aydin, who is Turkish-American and has lived in the U.S. for half of his life, expressed his desire to complicate the media’s portrayal of what it means to be Muslim. “ The image of Islam in the eyes of the average American person is largely based on lack of information and negative stereotypes,” Aydin said. “It is usually the extreme and fringe elements of the Muslim community that make the news.”

“The Islam of ISIS is a small minority in the Muslim community,” Aydin added. “It does not represent me, my family, my friends or my community.”

Aydin then highlighted three “little- known” facts about Islam. First, he defined Islam as “the next link in the Judeo-Christian tradition” in an attempt to frustrate the misconception that it is a “new or strange religion.” Second, he reminded the audience that Islamic civilizations made essential contributions to math and science — contributions that greatly in influenced the European Renaissance. Finally, he drew a distinction between religious and political motivations for disliking the West, stating that “the majority of Muslim people admire human rights, democracy and freedoms, especially in America … what they don’t like is policy, especially American foreign policy in the Middle East,” which he said is “oftentimes in sharp contrast to American values.”

Knight, a white American convert to Islam, spoke last. He acknowledged the hybridity, limitations and opportunities that define his experience as a “Muslim with blue eyes.” By Knight’s analysis, “when it comes to speaking about being a Muslim in America … there are people who aren’t Muslim … who can say more about the experience of being an American Muslim, because for whatever phenotypic reason, they’re marked as Muslim by American racism.” Knight was introduced to Islam through American hip-hop and, since then, has been able to explore the religion from a variety of perspectives. Knight told a story about facing Islamophobia while being held at the airport for hours when he was returning from Pakistan.

The panel was followed by a Q&A that became contentious after a professor asked why American Muslim communities do not publicly and vocally condemn terrorist attacks. Many panelists and members of the audience refuted the allegation. First, Aydin argued that Muslims often condemn attacks but are ignored by mainstream media. Others argued that the average Muslim person should not bear this responsibility, considering they have no connection to these fringe organizations.

“It gets exhausting, defending your religion constantly,” Ali said. “Why should we have to?”

Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum is News Editor of the Collegian.