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Education called key in dispelling anti-Muslim rhetoric

The panel of students included, from left: Payraw Salih, Juweria Dahir, Reem Abdellatif, Ilhamdaniah Saleh, Mohammad Sharief and Daniel Stegall. Photo: Chad Cooper

By JEFFREY GUIHER

Published April 22, 2016

“Hope is to see a world where race and the color of a person’s skin are irrelevant to the value of that person as a human being.”
Payraw Salih, physics, chemistry and biological sciences major

Educating the public about Islam is the best way to overcome stereotypes and dispel fear, and it’s up to Muslims to break down those barriers, several Muslim students told a UB audience yesterday.

The students were taking part in a panel discussion, “Muslim Students’ Experiences in the U.S.,” the third in a series of public events being held this month on campus in response to the anti-Muslim rhetoric in the media and in the U.S. presidential campaign.

The goal of yesterday’s panel, organizers said, was to educate the campus community about the joys and challenges of being a Muslim student at UB.

“The university offers us space to air out ideas and to attend to our curiosity, and also the curiosity of the community that we serve,” said Samina Raja, associate professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, School of Architecture and Planning, and moderator of the panel. “We need to switch the dialogue about Islam to a more scholarly discussion.”

All six panelists agreed their experiences as Muslims at UB have been comfortable and nonthreatening, despite the negative rhetoric coming from the presidential campaign. They suggested the diversity of the UB community has made accepting differences much easier — or even a non-issue.

Mohammad Sharief said that once barriers are broken down between religions and we get to know one another, "that’s when we don’t allow inflammatory language to tear us apart." Photo: Chad Cooper

“Once we break down the barriers between religions and get to know each other, that’s when we don’t allow inflammatory language to tear us apart,” said Mohammad Sharief. “We don’t allow people like Ted Cruz or Donald Trump to blame all our problems on one group of people.”

The female panelists acknowledged that wearing the hijab, the traditional headscarf, can subject them to negative stares and comments when they are out in the community. Juweria Dahir, a graduate student in the School of Architecture and Planning, said relatives in England warned her to be careful when she leaves the campus grounds.

Juweria Dahir said relatives in England had urged her to be cautious when leaving campus. Photo: Chad Cooper  

“I am vigilant and alert, especially when I travel,” Dahir said.

Also on the panel were Payraw Salih, a physics, chemistry and biological sciences major; Reem Abdellatif, a senior management major; Ilhamdaniah Saleh, a doctoral student in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning; and Daniel Stegall, a graduate student also studying urban planning.

After the panelists spoke, they opened the discussion to questions from the audience.

Reem Abdellatif has reconciled her religion and career by pursuing a position teaching business, rather than becoming a financier. Photo: Chad Cooper

One audience member asked how the panelists handled conflicts that arose between the requirements of a job and tenets of the Islam faith. Abdellatif said she had planned to go into the corporate world, where charging interest on loans is a standard practice, but one that is not followed by Muslims. She said she decided to reconcile her religion and career by pursuing a position teaching business, rather than becoming a financier.

The panelists said the great diversity of the UB community has made accepting differences much easier — or even a non-issue. Photo: Chad Cooper

Another member of the audience asked if it is easier to practice Islam in non-Christian countries. Saleh responded that it is extremely easy to practice Islam in Indonesia, where she is from, because 85 percent of the population is Muslim.

The discussion closed with panelists agreeing with Salih, who said: “Hope is to see a world where race and the color of a person’s skin are irrelevant to the value of that person as a human being.”