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DA Muslim Chaplain Fights Stigma Around Islam
Sarah Jane O'Connor '18, Associate Editor
April 27, 2016
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On Tuesday, January 19, Deerfield students had the opportunity to explore the legacy of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. through diverse workshops centered on themes of inclusion. One of many adults to share his knowledge and interpretation of inclusion was Hassan Awaisi ’07, who currently serves as DA’s Muslim Chaplain. Mr. Awaisi held a workshop focused on Islamophobia, and how this prejudice “fits into a longer American track record of demonizing minorities—Blacks, Italians, Irish, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, Latinos, etc.—as fundamentally Other.”

Credit: Hassan Awaisi
Credit: Hassan Awaisi

Mr. Awaisi stated, “The workshop I facilitated at Deerfield sought to critically examine four of the most prevalent stereotypes that undergird the twisted logic of anti- Muslim racism: ‘Islam is a monolith,’ ‘Muslim women are oppressed,’ ‘Islam promotes terrorism,’ and ‘Muslims are un-American.’”

Showing DA students “real-world examples of anti-Muslim bigotry in the media today,” he worked alongside several Muslim Deerfield students to explain and debunk the myths about Islam that are prevalent throughout the United States, from politics to media to everyday life.

In response to those who often reject Islam due to the acts of groups such as ISIS, Mr. Awaisi hopes to clarify the vast difference between Islam itself and the actions that terrorist organizations promote. “In reality, I think religion does not play nearly as big a role as geopolitics,” he said. “The champions of ISIS are first and foremost fascists, intent on gobbling up as much territory and power as they can, whilst swiftly eliminating anyone they regard as sub-human. Their rise to power is the latest upshot of a long history of shortsighted destructive U.S. military policies in the broader region stretching back at least to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.”

Mr. Awaisi also recognizes the dangers of spreading any Islamophobic sentiment. “Islamophobia itself fuels terrorism,” he said. “Sound bites like “Islam hates us”—courtesy of presidential candidate Donald Trump—only serve to bolster the recruitment narrative of Islamist extremists that the West is engaged in a fight to the death with the Muslim world.” In response to the negative rhetoric common in the media today, Mr. Awaisi hopes to clarify the true intentions of Islam as a whole. “ISIS has as much to do with Islam as does the KKK with Christianity, the Jewish Defense League with Judaism, Saffron Terror with Hinduism, and Ashin Wirathu with Buddhism,” he said. He explained that “the Islamic tradition is at its core irenic, decrying bloodlust as a disease of the heart. ‘Do not wish to meet the enemy in battle,’ the Prophet Muhammad instructed, ‘but if you meet them, then be steadfast.’ Fourteen centuries before the Geneva Conventions, [the Prophet Muhammed] laid out rules of warfare that forbade, for instance, the killing of children, women, and the elderly, the cutting down of fruit-bearing trees, and the harming of monks in monasteries.”

Mr. Awaisi also suggested how dramatically U.S. attitudes about Muslims have changed over the decades, pointing out that “Ben Franklin once praised the founder of Islam for his humane treatment of prisoners of war and submitted that Native Americans would not have suffered the fate they did had they lived under a Muslim sovereign.”

In the nine years since his graduation, Mr. Awaisi has maintained involvement at Deerfield specifically within efforts at DA to promote religious expression and curiosity. As Deerfield’s Muslim Chaplain, Mr. Awaisi visits campus “to give talks as well as work with student leaders on developing programming related to Islam and the Middle East.” He also helps with Mr. Flaska’s Islam and the Qur’an class by hosting students at the Hampshire Mosque in Amherst. During April, Mr. Awaisi “will be coming to [Mr. Flaska’s] class to lecture on the topic of ‘The Human Impact of the War on Terror.’”

He attended DA’s Interfaith Dinner last month and compared the discussion at the event to the climate on campus when he was a student. “There were fewer opportunities at that time for community-wide discussion on faith and identity in the context of a private boarding school,” he said. “I think the Interfaith Dinner is a wonderful step toward encouraging much-needed candid dialogue and alliances between students and faculty of different religious backgrounds.”