Aqsa Mahmood ’10 remembers watching, horrified, from her eighth-grade classroom in Queens, N.Y., as the World Trade Center towers collapsed. A lifelong New Yorker, she also remembers how friends pulled away from her, and the comments and stares on the street. “People really didn’t know where to place their emotions,” said Mahmood, “so they were automatically like, ‘You’re Muslim. Your people did this.’”
It hurt then. And during the 2008 presidential campaign, as detractors accused Barack Obama of “being Muslim,” Mahmood and other Muslims were stung again.
“There is always a negative connotation to it,” said Mahmood, a Pakistani-American and president of the Colby Muslim Group. “It’s always linked [in the media] to terrorism or the Taliban, jihad movements all around the world. You’ll never see somebody baking cookies.”
Members of Colby’s Muslim community, like their counterparts elsewhere, took note when their religion, wrongly assigned to Obama, was accepted by many as sufficient reason for the Democrat to be deemed unfit for the presidency. In fact, it wasn’t until October, just two weeks before the election, that former Secretary of State Colin Powell said in a television interview in which he endorsed Obama, “What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?”
For some, it was a reminder that Islam remains marginalized in the United States. And it also was an example of the way aggressive anti-Islamic pronouncements can fill a vacuum created by passive toleration, said Assistant Professor of History Jason Opal. “Tolerance is obviously better than intolerance,” he said, “but it’s pretty thin gruel to hold a society together.”
Opal, who saw tense exchanges about Obama and Islam in his classes, said the issue surfaces during discussions of Middle East policy and most recently in debate about Obama’s religious affiliation. But he said the discussion usually ended with a denial of the facts—no, Obama is not Muslim—rather than refutation of the notion that Muslims should be excluded from public office.
“Just saying everything’s cool in a very laissez-faire sense—it doesn’t cut it. If you leave that emptiness, it’s filled [in the media] with profoundly hateful commentary,” he said.
Opal, who includes some American political history in most of his classes, points out that for many years Roman Catholics were excluded from positions of power as their religion was “othered.” In the 2008 presidential primary election, Republican Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith was said by some to be suspect and a hindrance to his campaign. Opal said it’s important for professors to be actively tolerant of all religions. “You have to [promote] proactive appreciation,” he said, “that all faiths have a decency about them.”
One effect of the barrage of news of terrorists and Islamic extremists is that the tenets of Islam are overlooked and misunderstood. Sakhi Khan, advisor to the Muslim Group and head squash coach, pointed out that the suicide attacks and other violence so commonly associated with Islam are actually proscribed by it. “If you commit suicide, you go to Hell,” Khan said. “There is no place that you can find [in the Koran] that this is an act that is condoned.”
Violence, he said, is not driven by a desire to fulfill Islamic faith, but by leaders taking advantage of a pervading sense of hopelessness in poverty-stricken parts of the world.
Khan, who is Pakistani-American and has traveled extensively in northern Pakistan, said those regions of the country are not populated by legions of violent militants, as portrayed in the media. “People are poor,” he said. “People get along with their lives. They’re just trying to make ends meet.”
Mahmood said she considered inviting a speaker to campus to talk about issues like the true nature of jihad, or women and gender in Islam, but she decided not to. “I was so afraid of what the discourse might be afterwards,” she said, worried that people might ask, “Why is the Muslim group talking about jihad?”
Instead, the group’s most visible activity was the Eid celebration that concluded the month of Ramadan. Tables of specially prepared foods were served in the Pugh Center and people from throughout the Colby community attended. “Right now I’m known as the girl who had the Eid celebration,” Mahmood said, “and the wonderful food.”
For Opal, interest in campus events like the Eid dinner is a start. “I think there’ve been important and good things happen on campus, and in the nation in general, of late,” he said, “but I do think there is considerably more work to do in tolerance and appreciation of Islam.”