BY OLIVIA MURRELL
This past January during Centre Term, Dr. Matthew Pierce and Dr. Christian Haskett led a course on Islam in America. For the first week or so, the students engaged with some literary material regarding Islam. They began with some rich historical material regarding the long history that Islam has had in America. Then, for about 10 days, the class traveled up and down the eastern United Sates, meeting with Muslim activists, community leaders, influential writers, professors, and visiting an assortment of mosques.
I asked Dr. Pierce what lessons he wanted to teach with this course.
“People are often quite unaware of what a long history Islam has had in America. Much of that history is entwined with the history of slavery in the country, and so we focus on the intersection of race and religion to a significant extent.” Pierce said, “In fact, we begin the course by reading Malcolm X’s autobiography which is always a wonderfully eye-opening and sobering experience.”
Each student I interviewed commented on the reading of Malcom X’s autobiography. Alli Walther helped to enlighten me on one of the key sources of Islamophobia in America. The Nation of Islam, an African American political and religious movement, helped shape Americans’ perspective on Islam. During the 60s and 70s, when this group was especially active, African Americans began to be associated with the Nation of Islam, and given its very strong African American sentiment, was disliked by many white Americans who were directing substantial racism towards this group. Even though the Nation of Islam and Islam the religion are two separate entities, people began to associate Islam with African Americans, which caused even deeper prejudice to materialize.
Alongside the prejudices coming out of the civil rights era, there are a lot of misconceptions about Islam today that are being fed by fear and misinformation that are contributing to Islamophobia in the United States and around the world. These stories are being propagated by the media, and are causing deep rifts to form between Islam and much of the rest of the world. A common theme that ran throughout my interviews was that generally, as a society, we are tragically unaware of the deep impact that Islam has had on this country, and we do not take the time to add the people component. It tends to be just an idea floating around that people fear – a “demonic other,” and a scapegoat.
As mentioned previously by Dr. Pierce, Islam has its roots in the very beginning of our country, through slavery. Muslims are just as American as anyone else, and they have always been growing and living alongside the rest of America. Griffin Mason, when asked about how this course changed his view of Islam, he said that it added a deeper appreciation for it and a better understanding of how influential this religion has been in America.
The book Muslims and the Making of America was transformative, because it describes how influential Islam has been in the making of America. Many people are Muslim that we don’t typically think of – Ice Cube, Lupe Fiasco, Muhammad Ali, Shaquille O’Neal, Dr. Oz, and many others. The majority of Americans do not personally know (or think they know) someone who is Muslim. If someone has no personal relationship with someone who practices Islam, they gather information from whatever sources are available to them – typically the media. We create our own hypocrisy and ignorance by not attempting to directly change our presumptions and outlooks.
Junior Allison Walther had reflections on the course.
“Give Islam a face, not just a name and a news headline.”, Walther said.
Islam is a living, breathing religion that is deeply ingrained in our world and our culture. The less we know, the more we assume. Go out and learn – talk to people, take the time to get to know them. If you allow your mind to open, that prejudiced anger towards the whole religion can be abolished – and rightfully so.
Many of the students were deeply impacted by their personal experiences with Muslim leaders. “The human element makes it all come alive, or brings it down to Earth in a way that can be a corrective.”, said Haskett
Griffin Mason “could go on forever about this class – [he] loved it so much…it added a sense of beauty and understanding to a culture that doesn’t promote terrorism but in itself literally means ‘peace’… the majority of the international Muslim community doesn’t condone terrorism.”
Mason hopes that the students of Centre, who too often get caught up in the little bubble that a small liberal arts college in the middle of Kentucky too often creates, can learn the rich depth of other cultures, especially those outside their comfort zone.
Tyler Seabolt feels like he studied abroad even though he stayed in the U.S., and he feels that going somewhere different and new is imperative to a greater worldview.
“We are in here [at Centre] and we think we’re going to change the world, and then we get out into the real world and it says ‘no you’re not.’” said Seabolt.
It is not only to go visit these places and talk to these people, but it is also opening one’s mind up to ideas, beliefs, and religions that are different than yours. It’s easy to sit in a classroom and think you understand and think you can change the whole world with what you’ve learned, but it’s important to understand the complexity of societies, and they must be understood and respected if any real work is to be done.
“Religion,” said Tyler, “is what you put into it. The Bible can have violent implications if you want it to, and if that’s what you’re looking for.”
Dr. Haskett had similar reflections after his years of religious study.
“You can look in the Quran and pick out the line that says it’s okay to kill nonbelievers, if that’s what you’re looking for. The rest of the Quran, which everyone should take the time to understand, is very peaceful and compassionate.” said Haskett. Islam is a religion that rich, peaceful, and deserves our attention. This beautiful religion is hiding out in plain sight, and it is our duty to go out and experience it for ourselves.
Tyler Seabolt’s short, educational documentary about the class’s adventures: