Students discuss fear of Islam

Shane Finneran

A maximum capacity crowd turned out for “Confronting Islamophobia,” a lively discussion hosted by City College’s diversity committee Sept. 16. Dozens of students and a handful of faculty members talked for an hour about American fear of people of Islamic faith.

About 100 people filled professor of Chicano Studies Justin Akers’ classroom for the discussion, while dozens more were turned away because the room was too full. “We’re going to have to have a part two, right?” said Deanna Shelton, professor of speech and communications.

Early in the discussion, a student said some conservative leaders in the US claim that hatred being spewed within the Islamic religion” could lead to the persecution of people of other faiths. The student wondered if Islam and its teachings pose a genuine threat. “Is Sharia law something we should fear?” he asked.

Engineering student Alex Zwierski said he has talked to many Muslims at City College and sees no reason to be concerned. He said one person told him Muslims are proud of their religion, but are “never going to knock on your door” suggesting conversion.
“It’s not like they’re going to push it on everybody,” Zwierski said.

Akers, a member of the diversity committee, noted that Islam is second only to Christianity in terms of number of believers. He said Muslims form a majority of the population in 50 countries and there are 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, including 8 million in the United States.

Akers said he has noticed “increasing discrimination and misinformation and misunderstanding” in the national discourse surrounding Islam. He hoped the discussion of “Islamophobia” would “raise our level of understanding, appreciation, and mutual respect.”

One student said she’d recently seen a public service announcement in which Muslim Americans explained how they were not a threat to the country. She said she found it “sad and ridiculous that they have to defend themselves and their faith.”

Another student voiced a contrary opinion.
“I think it would help us if we saw more Muslim leaders stand out against terrorism
and the negative parts of Islam,” he said.

The same student asked why Muslim countries like Iraq and Afghanistan do not support freedom of religion. Other students responded that “radicals and extremists” who condemn other religions do not accurately represent Islam, which calls for respect of other faiths.

Shelton noted former president George W. Bush’s speeches in the wake of the 9/11 attacks were somewhat effective in calming fears of Islam, but that hate crime against Muslims “has still not gone down to pre-9/11 levels.”

She cited the August stabbing of a New York City taxi driver as an example.

“Prejudice, discrimination — it’s wrong,” said Ismail Khadar, a student from Somalia who is Muslim. Khadar said he used to drive a taxi in Atlanta, where a friendly young customer once shocked him by asking, point-blank, “Do you support Osama Bin Laden?”
Frank Asoa, who is studying biology, mentioned the manipulative power of fear.

“Islamophobia, it’s just one big war that the politicians use,” he said.
Another student seemed to agree. “It’s about land and oil and drugs,” she said, “and they’ve got it, and we want it.”

Andres Gonzalez, an air conditioning technology student, said that fear of Islam is a distraction from more important issues, like cuts to essential public services.

“We’re cut off from financial aid and hospitals,” he said. He urged people to “make sure the government is doing the right thing for us.”