September 2015 Features

Student POV: Islamophobia

Tiwana3Earlier this year, a federal court required SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority) to display a paid ad stating “Islamic-Jew Hatred: It’s in the Quran” on more than 80 buses in the Philadelphia area. The provocative posters incurred outrage within the Philadelphia Muslim community; campaigns and petitions calling for SEPTA to remove the ads were rampant across the Internet, the city, and the surrounding region. Within the Bi-Co community, Haverford College’s Muslim Student Association hosted a talk with activist Qasim Haider to dispel the myth that the Quran endorses anti-Semitism and address the issue openly.

I was saddened that a similar conversation did not take place at Bryn Mawr, but I was not entirely surprised. Conversations about perceptions of Muslims within the campus community rarely occur. Events locally and abroad often bring Islam under scrutiny, but these events, and the religion itself, receive little attention on campus. Either out of fear of causing offense or fear of sounding uninformed, the campus leaves such subjects untouched.

The downside of maintaining silence on such issues is the spread of misinformation, which in turn creates and fosters ignorance. By refusing to talk, we take a step backward in the path toward our individual progress and development as scholars and leaders. To the liberal arts student, learning encompasses more than textbooks, papers, and published works. It calls for the introduction of ideas that stimulate critical thought, ideas that perhaps even make one feel uncomfortable, unsafe, and unprotected by forcing one to question one’s assumptions—in short, ideas that push an impressionable mind to truly think.

When colleges concentrate on keeping the classroom “a safe space,” they lose a critical aspect of a liberal arts education. For individual students to truly benefit from the diversity so many campuses pride themselves on maintaining, it is imperative that challenging issues be brought to light, discussed, dissected, addressed, and, if need be, mobilized for or against. By sheltering students from difficult conversations, colleges run the risk of restricting the boundaries of education to textbook material and, as a consequence, limiting students’ opportunities to be fully aware and educated in every sense of the word.

Referring to the Haverford MSA SEPTA talk, Alizeh Amer ’16 comments, “It was really well attended, and I think events like that and [Bryn Mawr’s] Community Day of Learning really open up the space for dialogue on subjects that I think the community is scared to address.”

The Community Day of Learning was held in March and consisted of many panels hosted by faculty and students that addressed some of the critical issues facing the Bryn Mawr community. The Muslim Student Association hosted a panel called Islamophobia, which addressed preconceptions, misperceptions, and misconceptions regarding Islam, not just within the non-Muslim community, but also within its considerably smaller Muslim community. Attendees included Mawrters from Kuwait, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States, as well as Muslims from various sects of Islam.

Attendees credited the event for opening doors to conversation about this heavily contested religion. Fatema Sheikh ’17 was surprised to realize that “Islam really isn’t that homogenous.” Like all religions, it is open to interpretation and subject to cultural and political climates, thus carrying different interpretations and significance for different individuals.

The Islamophobia panel was a real learning experience for all involved, and our campus needs to venture deeper into this arena: to evolve thought processes and allow Mawrters to grow within an intellectually challenging environment and through our greatest asset—the diversity of our community. We must encourage discussion that is productive but not vindictive and teach students to handle sensitive issues with respect and honesty—in the classroom and beyond. The Community Day of Learning was definitely a step in that direction. Now, the Bryn Mawr community holds the responsibility of continuing these progressive conversations in years to come.

Mahira Tiwana ’16 is from Lahore, Pakistan, and majors in biology with a minor in Russian. She is co-president of The Muslim Student Association and plans to pursue a career in writing after graduating.

For more about Bryn Mawr’s Community Day of Learning, visit