The Multicultural Student Center arranged a panel on Islamophobia last Thursday evening. Naomi Thompson, associate professor of community, equity and diversity, and Dr. Nasser Zawia, the dean of the Graduate School, hosted the event in order to begin discussions into communities under attack.
“Be extremely respectful and kind,” Zawia said, concerning his practice and upbringing as a Muslim. The major tenets of Islam are faith, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage. He added that there are about 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, as it is the fastest growing religion.
The first speaker, Dr. Umer Akbar, defined “Islamophobia” as the irrational fear of Islam and Muslims. Peaks of Islamophobia occur mainly during election season, but also spike following terrorist attacks. Akbar also referred to U.C. Berkeley’s research that, in December of 2015 alone, there were 53 attacks against Muslims in the United States. Additionally, Akbar said one out of every two Muslims experience discrimination. Unfortunately, this vicious xenophobia stems from the historic hatred of Muslims, and has grown from the hatred of other groups or nations, such as Jews, African Americans and various immigrant groups.
Katrin Jomaa, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island, spoke about the influence of news sources, mainly that people get their information from the internet or from media outlets, both of which can be heavily biased. She emphasized the power of tolerance and understanding as tools for enriching one’s life, as learning about the core values and practices of a religion from someone within the community shapes a clear representation of the religion itself and its people.
“I’m taking Professor Jomaa’s course, Political Science and Religion 221: Islam and Its Civilization, and I think that that itself has opened my eyes a lot,” Meghan Smith*, a freshman history and secondary education major, said. Smith added that she “wasn’t very exposed to a lot of diversity [back home],” but that “this course has given me the opportunity to come out of my shell a little bit and interact with more people.”
The panel then moved to examine the political tension surrounding the Muslim community, which has consistently been a wedge issue in the 2016 election.
“It has never been a problem of religion,” said Adbelnesser Hussein, the principal of the Islamic School of Rhode Island in West Warwick. In February of 2015, Hussein’s Islamic School made headlines after being vandalized. The connection between Muslims and terrorism is statistically insignificant, as Akbar had noted earlier in the discussion that only about 6 percent of terrorist attacks in the past two decades have been committed by people associated with the religion. Media portrayals of terrorism have altered public opinion and perpetuated a cycle of hatred against Muslims. Mislabeling Muslims as inherently violent has led to bullying, assaults, vandalism and murders: none of which are conducive to solving the social and political issues at hand.
“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,” the Republican candidate’s campaign released in December of 2015. His policies have changed slightly over the course of the race, but leading with such a strong position caught the attention of voters after the San Bernardino, California, attack. Trump’s rationale for the ban was based on fear and the alleged threat of terrorism stemming from Muslims, which fed many intolerant preconceptions established by the media.
“Islamophobia is a really important issue and I think that more people should know about it,” Smith said, after the panel had concluded.
*Name has been changed for privacy.