About 50 graduate students gathered in Munger Graduate Residences on Wednesday evening to listen to three Muslim University students discuss their faith and experiences after the series of terrorist attacks in Paris carried out by ISIS.
Attendees gathered to learn more about the panelists’ beliefs and perceptions of the Muslim religion. Public Health student Ojaswi Adhikari explained the importance of these kind of events in promoting understanding and awareness. She said many people hesitate to ask certain questions out of fear of offending their peers.
“I hope that people are able to ask whatever they want to ask and have an open space where they don’t feel as judged,” Adhikari said. “It’s important to open up that dialogue and to feel free to say whatever you want to because you’re not going to have a platform like this outside of here.”
Many students attended with the intention to learn more about Islam in general. Public Health student Erica Dancik said she has several Muslim friends and classmates and that she came to the event to understand their experiences on campus.
“I hope that people take away a different understanding of their peers and their colleagues and a greater appreciation for different backgrounds and cultures,” Dancik said.
However, she acknowledged that while she values such events, attendees are typically the ones who are already open-minded.
“You risk attracting people that are already interested in different cultures and backgrounds and beliefs, but I’m not sure that matters,” Dancik said. “It’s still a good thing.”
The first question from the audience asked what Islam meant to the panelists. All three agreed the religion is a way of life.
“It’s easy to look at religion as a set of repetitive rules and boundaries, but for a lot of us, it’s just a way of living,” Dentistry student Hussain Haider said. “It’s just how I can go through this world with good, moral standards.”
Business graduate student Arshan Ahmad said the word Islam literally means submission through peace. He explained that the religion is built on the foundation of peace.
“That’s what the religion is about,” Ahmad said. “It’s about peace, and it’s about love.”
After discussing the five pillars of Islam and religious practices associated with the faith, audience members began asking questions centered around the current climate surrounding the religion in society and the media.
Another audience member asked what could be done to steer people away from media that promotes xenophobic views.
Haider encouraged the use of social media for exposure to all perspectives.
“If you have a Twitter or a Facebook, go and diversify your following,” Haider said. “Because then you’ll get everyone’s opinion. It’s a great way to get the feel for what people of different backgrounds are feeling when these events happen.”
Another attendee asked about the Muslim reactions in the media after the Paris attacks, inquiring if there was a general lack of response.
Ahmad acknowledged that efforts have been made to condemn the attacks and respond to the stereotypes and misconceptions, but said it is not shown in the media as often.
“I have a friend who’s a lawyer … he goes on the news to refute some ideas and things, but the topic of conversation always changes to try and humiliate him,” Ahmad said. “We believe that a lot is being done, just no one is listening.”
Rackham student Zehra Siddiqui said the beliefs of extremist groups are different than those of the vast majority of Muslims. She claimed that Muslims are also victims of terrorist attacks, and see the extremists as enemies.
“You can see that a lot of Muslims were fighting the Taliban and Islamic State, from the Kurds to the Sunni tribesmen who were displaced and hurt by them,” Siddiqui said. “A lot of Muslims have been killed by the Islamic State and Taliban. They have an end goal and a way of thinking that they are trying to justify, and they’re using Islam to do it.”
While the event fostered dialogue and discussion, Ahmad encouraged attendees to take action and share what they learned at the event.
Business graduate student MacCalvin Romain said he valued this event as an opportunity to help combat negative misconceptions about Muslims.
“I can make sure to disseminate a lot of the information that we gained today and help educate people, and make sure they feel as comfortable as possible having these conversations and initiating them with people we have around us day-to-day,” Romain said.
Siddiqui stressed the importance of interacting with Muslim peers to strengthen understanding and cross-cultural relationships. She said this will help reduce negative perceptions and stereotypes.
“Give Muslims a chance, get to know them and how they live their life,” Siddiqui said. “They are Wolverine fans. They are Spartan fans. There are people who wear headscarves, and there are people who don’t wear headscarves. You can see a wide range of people, but get to know us as people because that’s what we are.”