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St. Louisans on Islamophobia: ‘The real face of Islam is the face you see in front of you right now'

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Saba Fatima, Shehmin Awan and Evren Senol.

The president of Maryville University’s Muslim Student Association wants to set something straight:

“People need to understand that the real face of Islam is the face you see in front of you right now,” said Shehmin Awan. “It is us three people. It’s the billions of people who are practicing peacefully. It is not the face of ISIL or ISIS or whatever you want to call it. It’s not the face of a terrorist.

"It’s the face of a normal citizen trying to live their everyday life. All these politics are trying to divide people between religion and nationalities and race. That’s what’s getting in the way. At the core of it, we’re all human and we deserve to just live.”

Awan joined two other St. Louisans to discuss their experiences with Islam, Islamophobia and how they confront it on Wednesday’s “St. Louis on the Air” with host Don Marsh.

She was joined by Evren Senol, a real estate agent and a native of Cyprus who was raised as a Muslim but now attends a Presbyterian Church, and Saba Fatima, an assistant professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, who was raised in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The state of Islamophobia today

Last month, the executive director of the St. Louis chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Faizan Syed, said that he received a call threatening his organization in the wake of the San Bernadino shooting. Also in December, Mohammed Baban, a former Iraqi refugee, said he and a group of friends were accosted by a man screaming profanities at them outside their mosque in south St. Louis.

Recently, the California-based Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism released data that shows the rate of suspected hate crimes against Muslims in the United States has tripled since the attacks in Paris in November, with 38 attacks, as reported by news media and civil rights groups. This uptick in hate crime has included assaults on those wearing a hijab, mosque vandalism and death threats made against Muslim-owned businesses. Donald Trump’s December proposal to completely shut down the entry of Muslims to the U.S. is only adding fuel to the fire, as Americans worry over admitting refugees to the United States and the looming threat of ISIS. At the same time, misconceptions over what Islam actually preaches seem to be running rampant.

What is Islamophobia?

Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Saba Fatima

“For Islamophobia to be a thing, you have to know a little bit about Islam itself…this is more anti-Muslim racism or anti-Muslim sentiment more so than Islamophobia,” said Fatima. “It is almost a visceral reaction when people see Muslim bodies or what they think Muslim bodies might embody. Even if you see a Sikh man, you have the same sort of reaction.”

Awan said that, for her, media plays a larger part in creating Islamophobia by conflating what a terrorist is and what a Muslim person is.

“What a true Muslim is, is being confused with a terrorist who is not really practicing Islam but is pushing political causes in the name of a religion,” said Awan.

“If you really get to know the people and you understand that people of Islamic faith are just as friendly, just as religious but just as humanitarian but looking for understanding and peace in the world, their view will change,” Senol said.

Donald Trump is making things worse

Presidential candidate Donald Trump has made statements condemning Muslims and saying they should be kept out of America, alongside other derogatory statements about other minorities in the U.S. Senol, Awan and Fatima said his statements have had an impact on their everyday conversations.

“They always say the United States is a salad bowl…we want to make sure everyone can be an individual and follow their own beliefs but that they don’t have to feel their freedom of expression or speech are being imposed upon. That’s something Donald Trump is corrupting.”

Awan used the example of the Muslim woman wearing a hijab who was kicked out of a Trump political rally last week.

“That’s seen as a violation of the rights they’ve worked so hard to attain,” Awan said.

Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Shehmin Awan

She related a story of a friend who was confronted by a man at Home Depot saying “I’m going to vote for Donald Trump just because I don’t want to see you here.”

“I think that shows people follow Donald Trump for the wrong reasons,” Awan said. “If you want to follow Donald Trump for economic policies or for anything else, go ahead, follow him for that. But don’t follow him because he’s against Muslims because that’s going to traumatize an entire community.”

Fatima said she is less worried about Trump, believing him to be the product of an American democracy that values money over constituents’ needs, but that she is more afraid of the people who follow him.

“Trump has normalized saying hateful things about minority communities, be it Muslims, blacks, Hispanics,” Fatima said. “That guy hates all minorities it seems. I think there needs to be a civil discourse with his supporters in a manner than doesn’t make it seem normal to say hateful things. That makes it sound like it is something the American public will not stand for.”

"Trump has normalized saying hateful things about minority communities, be it Muslims, blacks, Hispanics."

That’s where the difficult conversation lies, said Senol, who goes to meetings around St. Louis and hears people commenting on Donald Trump, not necessarily against Islam, but against minority cultures in general.

“The difficulty is getting masses to really open their minds to understanding differences in cultures and accepting those differences,” Senol said.

Trump is not alone, said Fatima, he is part of the larger Republican party, which has other candidates saying derogatory things about Islam —Ben Carson and Ted Cruz among them.

A responsibility to speak up

Awan said she first experienced Islamophobia when she was six years old. That was when 9/11 occurred, three hours away from her family’s home in Albany, New York.

Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Evren Senol

“Even at such a young age, as soon as it happened, people already looked at me different,” Awan said. “Someone asked my sister ‘do you have a bomb in your backpack?’ They had known us for years, they knew we were peaceful people, they knew our families, we used to play together...”

Senol said that his son and daughter both worry about what their fellow students say at school today.

Joe Milburn, a senior at Saint Louis University and convert to Islam, said that he lost friends after he converted to the religion and it has made him feel isolated.

“To many of my family members and to many of my non-Muslim friends, I am the only Muslim they know personally and because of that I have a burden and a responsibility towards them,” Milburn said in an email. “Whenever ISIS or similar organizations perform a terrorist attack, I am often everyone's ‘go-to guy,’ which means that I get asked questions about Islam on ‘whether or not Islam allows terrorism.’ … I would say that as an American Muslim I have a special responsibility to not act in such a way that would harm the image of Muslims because to many I am the only Muslim they know and I have had experiences that whenever I make mistakes or do something wrong, they associate it with Islam.” 

"As an American Muslim I have a special responsibility to not act in such a way that would harm the image of Muslims because to many I am the only Muslim they know."

Fatima said that is the responsibility of those who are not subject to hateful speech to engage in conversations with their friends and families making their stance in support of Muslims clear.

“It is not sufficient to say it in your heart,” Fatima said. “I think Muslim Americans have an added responsibility as well. Not to go tell the world ‘hey, we’re a peaceful religion,’ that’s an undo burden. They have a responsibility to engage in American politics, to go vote, to develop a platform of political demands. There needs to be concerted effort to have this hatred that’s out there, have it be tamped down.”

How can you learn more about the realities of Islam?

One email “St. Louis on the Air” received during the show asked how non-Muslims can learn about the religion in a non-evangelical way.

Awan and Fatima said that Muslim Student Associations at universities, and the events they hold are a great way to understand the religion without partaking in it. In fact, Awan hosts a “Hijab Awareness Day” ever year at Maryville that allows non-Muslims to try a hijab on for the day to see what it feels like to walk as a Muslim woman for the day. Other similar events at campuses across the region help aid that discussion.

Here’s a list of local MSAs:

Here’s a list of local groups that may be of assistance:

Awan also added that local mosques, such as Daar-ul-Islam mosque on Weidman Rd. or Dar al-Jalal mosque on Dunn Rd, put on events for non-Muslims all the time with the intent of education, not conversion. She mentioned that past events include “Meet Your Muslim Neighbor” and a fast-breaking feast during Ramadan.

“While people may think attending a place of worship will invite people to try to convert them, I assure you and all those interested that this is not the case,” Awan said. “These events hope to bridge the gap between the Muslim community and the non-Muslim community in order to ease tensions and provide answers to critical concerns.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh, and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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