Rhetoric has Penn's Muslim students on edge
Lamis Elsawah was on a train when she first heard about the terrorist attack in San Bernardino. "I had this feeling, 'Please don't let this be a Muslim,' " the University of Pennsylvania freshman, 18, said Friday, " 'because I don't feel like dealing with this again.' "
Lamis Elsawah was on a train when she first heard about the terrorist attack in San Bernardino.
"I had this feeling, 'Please don't let this be a Muslim,' " the University of Pennsylvania freshman, 18, said Friday, " 'because I don't feel like dealing with this again.' "
Nineteen-year-old Penn sophomore Nayab Khan shared the emotion: "Every time it's a Muslim, your heart just melts. I can't believe my own people are doing this."
The young women, members of Penn's Muslim Students Association, took part Friday in the final, on-campus jumaa prayer - the most-attended Muslim prayer of the week - before the winter break.
They heard a university representative read a message of support from Penn's president, Amy Gutmann, who expressed "personal dismay" at the "hateful rhetoric that has circulated around the country on the topic of Islam" since the California killings.
Later, Elsawah and Khan gathered with a handful of friends, and Penn's Muslim chaplain, Kameelah Rashad, for a wide-ranging discussion about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's call to ban Muslims from entering the United States. They have since made adjustments in their daily lives, they said.
"You end up self-censoring," said Zuhaib Badami, 18, an international student of Pakistani-Australian descent whose parents live in Saudi Arabia.
"When my friend says, 'I totally bombed that exam,' that makes me worry, because I don't want people around me to think, 'Oh my gosh, these Muslims are talking about bombs,' " said Badami.
After the San Bernardino and Paris attacks, he said, he has been hyper-self-conscious about actions that could be misinterpreted as suspicious.
"At the airport I know I can't just go into the bathroom, come out, go into the bathroom again, and come out just because I'm feeling sick without having to worry that someone is going to think I'm messing around . . . putting something in there."
Ilani Zin, 21, of Malaysia, is an international student in business and finance at Drexel University, who, like many Muslim women, wears a head scarf. Joining her friends at Penn for Friday's prayer, she said the last few months had been "emotionally exhausting" because "anti-Islam sentiment is at an all-time high, not only in America, but around the world."
Like Badami, Zin is hypersensitive to how she is perceived. For instance, she recounted a class about the economic consequences of ISIS attacks on American soil, she said, when "suddenly everyone turned and looked at me."
The women know their head scarves sometimes make them targets. The website muslimgirl.net recently published a "crisis safety manual," which suggested, among other tips, "If you wear a hijab, try the hood or beanie-on-top option to attract less attention."
"For me, that has never been an option," said Elsawah, who wears her hair tucked in a scarf. "But the fact that they had to go and do a survival guide, in and of itself explains the state we're in."
Du'aa Moharram, 18, of East Windsor, N.J., is a freshman in Penn's School of Nursing. All four of her grandparents were born in Egypt. In the aftermath of any attack by Muslims, she said, there is the predictable outcry: " 'Muslim people, where are you? Where are the moderate Muslims condemning this?' . . . It's really frustrating. . . . We are condemning this. You guys just aren't hearing it. . . . If you're a moderate Muslim you have nothing to do with ISIS. . . . ISIS wants Muslims to feel unwelcome in America. Giving them what they want is counterproductive if we are trying to defeat them."
Regarding Trump and some of his remarks, "I still think it's like a joke," said Elsawah. "It's not actually happening. But he is going up in the polls. . . . So how am I supposed to feel comfortable if this nation is telling us that we should leave the country?"
For several of the students, the concern is that Trump's rhetoric makes it seem that being American and being Muslim are incompatible.
"I'm American Pakistani, born and raised in Queens, N.Y.," said Khan. "But I go to Pakistan every summer. Some people say: 'Well, you're not really American. You're still Pakistani, you love cricket; you love wearing Indian clothing.' " Just because I am so invested in my culture doesn't stop me from being American. Being American is recognizing the different values of people who come together . . . learning from each other."
Among the most annoying questions Elsawah gets asked, she said, is where she comes from. It's happened countless times, she said, and more so since the attacks.
"I say, 'King of Prussia,' and they say, 'No, no. Where?' This is the most irritating question for me," she said, "because I'm just as American as you are. I've lived here my whole life and haven't left the country. I don't see why you have to ask me where I'm from and expect an answer other than what I'm giving you. If you want to know what my ethnicity is, ask me that."
Rashad, the chaplain, empathizes with these students - mostly kindergartners at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks - who have had to deal with Islamophobia, on and off, throughout their lives.
A big hurdle, she said, is "confirmation bias," which in this context means the tendency of some people - who already believe that Muslims are prone to violence - to blame all of Islam for the violent acts of the radicalized few.
Helping the students to process the Trump phenomenon, Rashad pointed out that Trump is a Wharton graduate. "So he's a businessman. . . . His product is fear, and people are buying it. If there were no consumers for it, he would go in a different direction. He tried the Mexicans are murderers and rapists and let's build a big wall, and Univision was like, 'No thank you, we are not having that. You will not have your pageant on our television show.' That affected him economically. He went in another direction, hopping on the refugees. Now it's Muslims, and he's hit gold.
"Some of the condemnation [of Trump's message] even by [President Obama] has added in, 'Well, Muslims, you still have to do more to root out this misguided ideology.' My response is Donald Trump is also espousing some misguided ideologies. Who's going to root that out?
"There is some media responsibility," said Rashad, but also a role for average Americans, who need to ask, "What is my responsibility to learn more, to challenge my own assumptions?"
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