SYRACUSE, NY- She stands in front of the mirror pinning her hair back. She reaches for her headscarf and carefully wraps it around herself. The clock strikes seven. Her day begins.
Who is this woman?
A Muslim. The label comes with many connotations.
“Suddenly you become a foreigner, ignorant, uneducated, anything but American,” says Magda Bayoumi of the Islamic Society of Central New York Mosque, “There are various stereotypes that come along with wearing a hijab, and you just have to take it.”
Her opinion is not unique to just the Muslim community. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that 58% of American adults believe that Muslims are facing more discrimination than any other religious group, and most other social minorities with the sole exception of gays and lesbians.
For the international Muslim student on Syracuse University’s campus, this can make adjusting to their temporary home all the more difficult.
Language coordinator for the English to Speakers of Other Languages Program, Margo Sampson agrees that those that are undergraduates face issues beyond culture shock. “There is definitely some cultural bias in expression of prejudice. At night, in the dorms, other students come back drunk, they let their guard down, and they swear at the international students. They say things that you wish these students didn’t have to hear.”
But Muslim-Americans fight similar battles.
“When I first got to Syracuse, I felt like an alien,” says graduate student, Najah Zaaeed. “One of the first questions that I got in talking to figures in the administration was, ‘Are you a US citizen?’”
“I don’t even have an accent.”
Zaaeed is a Michigan native.
That same Pew Research Center survey, also found that only a slim majority of Americans were correctly knowledgeable about the Muslim name for God, Allah, and their sacred text, the Koran. Education, however, made the greatest difference, as the number rose to 64%.
“Religion is famous for creating division; these controversial characteristics are not at all solely unique to political ideologies,” admits Professor and Department Chairperson, James W. Watts. “However,” he adds, “in our curriculum we are not trying to convince people or take a religious stance or opinion, our goal is simply exposure to traditions, ideas, and history, to train understanding.”
Yet most students do not come to the university with intentions of studying religion, and to learn more, they don’t necessarily have to.
This fall, a new religious organization has come about at Hendricks Chapel, Students for Inter-Religious Understanding. In a quick email exchange, co-founder, Josh Cook, described their mission in one word, “understanding.”
“It is my personal hope that groups like this one (which was partially inspired by a visit from Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core) will help reduce religiously-motivated violence in the world, and build a movement that taps into the deep wisdom and resources of the great religious traditions, in order to help protect human rights and social justice, the integrity of the natural environment, etc.” he continued, “These are issues that impact us all, regardless of our religious affiliation.”
Similar intentions were behind the travel study experience, Three Faiths, One Humanity, founded by former Interim Dean of Hendricks Chapel, Kelly Sprinkle.
In the past, a dozen or so religiously- and ethnically-diverse students have intended to travel to Jerusalem to “explore areas of the world where diverse religious communities exist,” thereby increasing “interfaith understanding and cooperation.” For safety reasons, they settled on Spain in 2003 and Turkey in 2007, instead.
Most recently however, from March 8th to March 17th of 2009, nine Christians, two Jews, and two Muslims, finally made the trip.
And it’s about time, as it turned out that it brought about one of the deepest student-impacts to date. In the group’s online journal, of which was updated daily during their experience, Anna Koulouris described the evolution of the group dynamic:
“A member of our group was detained at the airport because of his Arabic name, yet that same student met three good friends in town - a Jew, a Muslim and a Druse - who thought nothing of their differences. This is a place where a church, a mosque and a temple are located on the same block, yet it is home to some of the fiercest political conflicts in the world. It's a place rich in its paradoxes. It's a place where your expectations are turned upside down. I have been surprised by the mixture of faiths and cultures here. Of course there are Arab sections and Jewish sections, churches, mosques and temples, but every street sign is written in Arabic, Hebrew and English. Most can speak each other's language. They all use the same highways. They all love their God, their land and their families. I’ve seen something happen to our group in the past few days. Either Israel is transforming us into a similar paradoxical yet cohesive body, or we are simply seeing a reflection of ourselves through our experiences in Israel. Jerusalem is proving to be a place where the culmination of our interfaith dialogue is possible.”
Ginny Yerdon, the special events coordinator at Hendricks Chapel, had the opportunity to accompany two of the three groups on their travel study experiences, and from that, has developed may have found the answer to creating interfaith dialogue on Syracuse University’s campus, “The key to bridging gaps, is meeting others with an interest in faith, in culture, in tradition, and discovering the commonalities.”
If this is true, then some form of education and exposure to religious diversity is vital for a student body that represents all fifty states and over 100 countries, as well as for the educators that teach them.
“You would get along with others,” says Yerdon, “if you just knew.”