"Dialogue with our Muslim Neighbors" inspires frank discussion

 The words came up over and over again: Terrorist. Tolerance.

When three Muslim students at CCA were invited to share their experiences as immigrants to America, their stories were remarkably similar. They love their new country, they said, but feel that some Americans aren’t so quick to make them feel welcomed here.

In an effort to demystify what it means to be Muslim, the college’s Global Initiatives Committee and English as a Second Language Department collaborated on a recent presentation titled “Building Bridges: A Dialogue with our Muslim Neighbors.” Faculty members Elizabeth Hirsh, Daniel Schweissing, and Sasa Jovic hosted the event, and student panelists were Ihab Alshawi of Iraq, Siham Mouhieddine of Morocco, and Dima Ahram of Syria. The panelists are students in CCA’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program.

The Student Centre Rotunda filled to capacity as Jovic introduced the discussion. After panelists shared their stories of coming to the United States, hands shot up as people wanted to know: “Do you practice your faith differently here than at home?” and “What is one of the biggest challenges that faced you as an immigrant?” Alshawi quickly fielded the latter question: “The language!” he said, adding that finding a job was hard because of the language barrier—which is how he came to enroll in ESL classes.

Mouhieddine said her most difficult moment came when she decided to wear the hijab, a traditional head covering worn by some Muslim women. “I feel the media has given the wrong impression of what being Muslim is about, of what Islam is about,” she said, recalling a shopping trip to a major department store in which she was deliberately overlooked by employees.

Ahram said that she, too, has been criticized for wearing the hijab. If people aren’t making inappropriate and unsolicited comments, such as “aren’t you too hot in that?” she said, she feels people are afraid of her. “Wearing the hijab does not make us less than other people! This is just who we are,” she explained.

Alshawi noted that immigrants must learn about the Bill of Rights and the Constitution and other American documents, but noted with interest: “The founding fathers say there is a freedom of religion, but you criticize us for our dress,” he said.

Mouhieddine admitted she is getting used to people’s reactions when she tells them she is Muslim. “People tend to be afraid; they say, oh, my, you might be a terrorist,” she said. “But, without the hijab, you wouldn’t know if I’m Indian or Mexican!” She advised Americans to experience and read about other cultures so that they can better understand them.

Despite his sense that many Americans have some level of fear of Muslims, Alshawi said he also feels hopeful. “You can see in their eyes that they are interested in our culture,” he said. “Not everybody misunderstands us, but when people are curious about us, we say, please ask us! We are happy to answer your inquiries about our dress, our religion, our way of life.” A recurring theme among panelists is the way they feel they are portrayed in the news media. “Ask us questions,” they urged. Alshawi counseled: “Read about other religions. Don’t just listen to one side, either; listen to everybody and decide for yourself.”

Syrian native Ahram shared, with a mix of amusement and sadness, a story to illustrate a common American response to Muslims: “My son, when he was in sixth grade, was pestered by some eighth grade schoolmates who said ‘hey, you Muslim, are you going to blow up our school?’” She also recalled taking her son to school on a snowy day only to discover the school was on a weather delay – and feeling belittled because a school representative asked, “don’t you people have a television or computer to get the news?” “Of course we have a tv, we have computers,” she said. “I just didn’t think to check the news that morning, but that person jumped to a conclusion about how we live.”

Moroccan native Mouhieddine sought to clarify another matter. “I am proud to be an American, but I am also proud of my religion,” she said. “Remember, Islam means ‘peace.’ We are very peacefully minded.” Ahram agreed: “We are taught to live in peace and not hurt others,” she explained. “People misunderstand the Quran. Let’s stop fighting and stop discrimination and just live in peace!” Iraqi native Alshawi supported the idea of tolerance, and said that “one of the most important parts of our religion is to respect other religions.”

With regard to the “terrorist” label, Mouhieddine was clear: “These terrorists, they do not represent Islam. They are hiding behind the name Islam,” she said. She reminded the Americans and fellow immigrants in the room not to fear Muslims because “we have the same hopes and ambitions as you!”

One student questioned the panel and generated some laughter among the crowd: “To whom do you pray, for how long, and about what?” Syrian native Ahram responded simply: “We pray to God with thanks for health, and for life,” she said. “Prayer is also a time out, a breather.” A question by another student turned the tables on the panelists: Any surprises about Americans? Mouhieddine said there were few: “We know about you,” she said. “We see your movies. We know your culture.” Ahram confirmed with a smile: “Yes, we learn all about Americans in school!”

The event concluded with a discussion of the various factions of Islam. “It was gratifying to watch the students, panelists, and audience members alike, as they engaged a wide range of issues with grace and courage,” said Ted Snow, CCA dean of liberal arts. “It was a true moment of CCA community we will not soon forget.”

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