Jihad. Bombs. Extremism. Hijab. These are just a few of the words three other Muslim students and I spoke — the air in the room heavy with tension — as we shared our stories in front of one hundred DA faculty members in January. We’d been invited to speak by Ms. Marjorie Young, Director of Inclusion and Community Life, who believed it was time “to share and have our faculty hear and understand what it is like to be a Muslim student on our campus.”
When I first came to Deerfield, I remember expecting that, in a school like ours, everyone would be welcoming and open-minded. For the most part, they are. But ignorance about Islam is ubiquitous in our culture, both outside and inside Deerfield, and because of this, Muslims are bound to be misunderstood. As Ms. Young put it, most of us don’t realize that “not all… students are having the same experience at Deerfield.”
Talha Tariq ’17, one of the nine Muslim students on campus, has been a victim of this ignorance. He recounted, “During my freshman year, a boy in my dorm used the term Jihad instead of my name for almost the entire year. Jihad is a term referring to a Muslim’s duty to protect and maintain our religion, though it has been skewed by the Taliban and like-minded militant groups to refer to a “holy war” on western civilization. When asked to stop, the student invoked his first amendment right to free speech.” However, “free speech” is not an excuse for insensitivity and bullying, especially at Deerfield. And it is certainly not an excuse for blatant unkindness. As Tariq pointed out, we all “signed away” the right to free speech by agreeing to become members of the Deerfield community. In essence, to become a member of this community, all of us made an unspoken pledge to live, work, and play together harmoniously, a commitment that sometimes entails “censoring” what we say and acknowledging that, although we may have the right to say something, it is not always right to say it.
Like Tariq, I have experienced discomfort when encountering ignorance and misunderstanding by classmates. Once, on a normal school day in one of my classes, the discussion diverted to the topic of Islam. One student asked what the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims was, and immediately another student responded by saying that he had taken a class before and, as he understood it, the Shias were “the weird ones.”
I identify as a Shia Ismaili Muslim— united with other Ismailis in our allegiance to the Aga Khan, our spiritual leader and a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad — so, naturally, I felt uncomfortable and slightly offended. To me, it seemed his comment was born out of ignorance, not out of an intention to harm, but nonetheless, as the Aga Khan highlighted in a speech, “in a pluralistic world, the consequences of ignorance can be profoundly damaging.”
Another Muslim student mentioned a time in class when the students were discussing their vacations. When one student mentioned that she was stopped at the airport for no reason, another replied, “Just because you don’t have a scarf doesn’t mean you don’t have a bomb in your bag.”
These were both instances of ignorance and a lack of sensitivity, demonstrating that seemingly trivial comments and remarks unnoticed by the rest of the community can nevertheless be hurtful to individual students.
Muslims all around the world are misunderstood due to the stereotypical lens through which the media depicts them. We fear what we do not understand, and there are many people who do not truly understand Islam yet make certain claims and assumptions about those who practice the religion.
Saba Al-Qubailat ’17 knows what it is like to be severely misunderstood and, in turn, feared. When sharing her story with the faculty on January 21st, she narrated, “I took a cab to Greenfield by myself. The cab driver looked very unpleasant the moment he saw me… He kept turning and looking at me from head to toe. I was terrified.” In Greenfield, Al- Qubailat smiled at a woman with her daughter. “I said ‘Hi’ like some did before me,” she said. “The mom pulled her child away [from me].”
In addressing the steps that the Deerfield community needs to take to learn to be more inclusive towards Muslims as well as other minorities, Ms. Young pointed out that “a way to make students feel more supported and included is to ensure that their history, traditions, and culture are represented in the curriculum, books, and classroom practices.”
The whole community needs to be educated, students and teachers alike. Teachers need to be knowledgeable about Islam so that when discussions spring up in classes, they can help inform and guide them. As Tariq stressed, “the first step towards equality is education from many different sources.”
Ultimately, it is up to Deerfield students and faculty to decide what kind of citizens they want to be; a large part of our character is determined by our actions and our words. We have to be responsible with the things we say and do every day, and we must remember that, as the Aga Khan stated, “freedom of expression is an incomplete value unless it is used honorably.” Most importantly, as Tariq noted, we must realize that “the main principle of any community is that when one member suffers, we all suffer. But when one member benefits, we all experience the positive effects.”