Religious insensitivity on campus is unacceptable

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Alya Mehrtash staff writer

“So do you hate all Jews?”

This is a question that a seventh-grader should never be asked. But I, on my first day as a student in BHUSD, was asked that exact question. This assumption was made after my Jewish classmate found out that, to her surprise, I was not Jewish but rather Muslim. Having grown up in an especially accepting and diverse community outside of Beverly Hills, I was unprepared and blindsided by such a direct and aggressive question. Since then I have become accustomed to the instilled animosity toward my religion. But I shouldn’t be.

There is a stereotype surrounding those who follow Islam, one that suggests Islam directly correlates to extremism. Many people often assume that if you are a Muslim, then you must either be a terrorist, or you support groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, about 41 percent of American adults feel that Islam encourages violence more than other faiths. This cannot be further from the truth. A different PRC survey found that “about eight-in-ten U.S. Muslims (82%) say they are either very (66%) or somewhat (16%) concerned about extremism committed in the name of Islam around the world, about the same as the share of the general public that feels this way (83%).” This completely rebuts the idea that almost all Muslims are terrorists or support such. On the contrary, the majority of Muslims disagree with Islamic extremists and their horrifying crimes.

It’s also quite notable to mention that religious extremism is not only found in Islam, but in countless other faiths as well. Whether it’s ISIS fighters yelling “Allahu akbar” before committing horrible acts of violence, Buddhists in Myanmar killing Rohingya Muslims, or Christian extremist armies in India forcing Hindus to convert to Christianity at gunpoint, extremists will often hijack their respective religion to justify unspeakable crimes. While these extremist acts are committed by a small minority in the name of religion, they often contribute to false impressions and generalizations of those religions as a whole, including Islam.

As a Muslim, I have often found myself at the butt end of such stereotypes and generalizations. Just two weeks ago I overheard a group of students yelling “Allah akbar,” an important Islamic phrase which means “God is great” in Arabic, followed by their mimicking of the sound of an explosion. As they all erupted into laughter, I began to walk faster away from them. It’s hard to even put into words how I felt in that exact moment. I felt anger, pain, discomfort. But, for a split second, I also felt embarrassment. Why? Why was I embarrassed by my identity, when they should be the ones embarrassed by their ignorant actions? The unacceptable ignorance of those students, none of whom I even knew personally, had had such a strong impact on how I felt about myself. That’s just the sad truth of what words like this can do to others.

Unfortunately, ignorance and insensitivity are still quite common on campus. It’s not rare to walk around and hear the recurring terrorist jokes or disrespectful mockery of religious phrases. It almost seems as though the students partaking in this awful repartee don’t consider the impact their words could have on others. It’s not a good feeling to walk around my school, a place where I should feel safe and accepted, and feel uncomfortable about an essential part of who I am.

Religious discrimination is not uncommon nowadays. Our school is a part of a broader society in the United States where intolerance is on the rise, as witnessed recently in the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. A man maliciously killed 11 innocent people in their holy place of worship simply because he was intolerant of their religion. This tragedy is yet another example of the hate-filled environment that we live in today. While the ill-informed comments of students on campus are nowhere near heinous crimes like this, both contribute to the hateful idea of religious intolerance.

Students need to understand that as trivial as these jokes may seem, they can actually have a tremendous impact on people. I, personally, now become nervous whenever someone asks me about my religion. I’m scared that they won’t look at me the same way or that I’ll be judged. This mentality may seem absurd, but when students like myself are placed in an environment where others make them uncomfortable because of who they are, concerns like this are not unlikely.

Many of these ignorant comments often emanate from lack of knowledge or understanding of other faiths. We, as human beings, need to better educate ourselves about other religions and cultures. It is only through learning about other communities that the walls of prejudice and ignorance will crumble.

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