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Challenged beliefs

SPM talks to a Muslim, Mormon and Jewish student about prejudice, pain and stereotypes

 by Katie Kelberlau  published on Thursday, February 3, 2005

<em>ON THE COVER</em>/issues/arts/691870
cover
ON THE COVER
 
<em>Brandon Quester / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE</em><br>Framed by the designed grate covering the majority of the windows, one of two domes is visible at the Islamic Community Center in Tempe. Guests are welcome at the center provided they respect the rules and remove their shoes before heading up the stairs.  
/issues/arts/691870
Brandon Quester
Brandon Quester / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Framed by the designed grate covering the majority of the windows, one of two domes is visible at the Islamic Community Center in Tempe. Guests are welcome at the center provided they respect the rules and remove their shoes before heading up the stairs.
 
<em>Brandon Quester / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE</em><br>Cameras such as this one are a necessary precaution for the Islamic Community Center of Tempe.  Due to acts of prejudice, the center has had to beef-up their surveillance of the building. 
/issues/arts/691870
Brandon Quester
Brandon Quester / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Cameras such as this one are a necessary precaution for the Islamic Community Center of Tempe. Due to acts of prejudice, the center has had to beef-up their surveillance of the building.
 
<em>Brandon Quester / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE</em><br>Mormons are another religious group that have experienced misconceptions and harassment. Pictured here is The Book of Mormon.  
/issues/arts/691870
Brandon Quester
Brandon Quester / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Mormons are another religious group that have experienced misconceptions and harassment. Pictured here is The Book of Mormon.
 
<em>Brandon Quester / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE</em><br>Rema Nasaredden has experienced the common misconceptions that people have about her appearance and religious background.  She says a lot of people just do not take the time to understand Islam. 
/issues/arts/691870
Brandon Quester
Brandon Quester / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Rema Nasaredden has experienced the common misconceptions that people have about her appearance and religious background. She says a lot of people just do not take the time to understand Islam.
 

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With her veiled hair, modest clothing, and olive skin, pre-business junior Rema Nasaredden knows a thing or two about stereotyping.

Nasaredden says she was helping the Muslim Students Association at an informational table during the presidential debate when "this total right-wing Christian straight out of Texas walks up.

"He starts telling us how great it is that the U.S. is in Iraq and how what they are doing there is beautiful," she says.

Nasaredden adds that the man also implied they were all terrorists who should be grateful for the help of the U.S. government.

Of course, she has become used to these types of insults, as the misunderstandings and false stereotypes about her faith seem to be firmly entrenched in American society. As she discusses the incident, she sighs, shrugging her shoulders in resignation.

Islam and other religions, as a construct of one's identity and a harbinger of both good and evil, are now in the public eye more than ever. As divisiveness over religion questions mixes with politics, more stereotypes and biases result, occasionally with explosive outcomes.

In this article, SPM talks to a Muslim, Mormon and Jewish student to bring to light the false assumptions and prejudices they experience on a daily basis.

They dress funny

Kathleen Wong, senior program coordinator of the ASU Intergroup Relations Center, has worked with a variety of religious organizations on campus to foster healthy debate and dialogue.

The center, which assists students and staff in tackling conflicts and engaging in meaningful issues, exists to develop deeper understanding among diverse groups.

"It is not about making nice," Wong says, but rather about debating and dealing with conflict in a healthy, productive way.

Though the center does not work exclusively with religious groups, it has helped facilitate dialogue among campus groups including the MSA, Hillel Jewish Students Association and the Campus Interfaith Council, a conglomerate of Christian clubs.

Wong says there has been a huge awakening on campus with regard to religious diversity.

"It was like one day, everyone noticed that there were all these Muslims walking around," she says. "They were always here, just no one noticed before."

The awakening occurred just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, after which many incidents of violence, harassment and racial slurs against Muslims or those who appeared Muslim occurred.

On Sept. 15, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi, an Indian immigrant and Sikh, was shot in the head and killed in front of his convenience store in Mesa. Sodhi's family believed the killing was a hate crime committed against him because he wore a turban and was presumed to be of Arab descent.

Nasaredden, the Islamic student, says the idea that Muslims are terrorists is probably one of the biggest misconceptions about her religion.

"It is very unfair to take one event and put it on all Muslims," she says. "That is not how it is at all."

Wong at the Intergroup Relations Center says the violence against Muslims and those who appear to be Muslim is not limited to areas of campus.

"There was a lot of panic on campus; people were afraid, and rightly so," she says.

While a few violent incidents occurred on campus in the time period just after Sept. 11, Wong says that in subsequent years, things have died down significantly and there has been a concentrated effort to raise awareness about Islam on campus.

She says there are still occasional property damage issues including graffiti or car damage that appear to be religiously or ethnically motivated. She adds that religious stereotypes may never truly disappear.

Nasaredden says others need to make an effort to understand Islam and that if a person is Muslim, that does not mean he or she agrees with violent actions extremists commit.

"If you believe that there is only one God and Mohammed was his last messenger, then you are a Muslim," she says. "If terrorists believe these things, we cannot consider them to not be Muslims.

"(But) they are not living the practice of Islam," she adds. "They will have to answer to God for what they do."

Nasaredden says the media is partly to blame for the misunderstandings surrounding Islam.

The myth the media perpetuates, she says, is that because al-Qaida and other terrorist groups are considered Muslims, then the Muslim world must support them in all they do.

She says most of the American media is biased against Muslims, or at least uninformed. Though the misuse of Arabic words by American media often is laughable, Nasaredden says she is upset by terms such as jihad used in reference to the actions of terrorists, whom some media agents have now dubbed "jihadists."

"Jihad literally means struggle," she says.

She adds that that the biggest emphasis of the word is on the inner struggle with one's own ego. The outer struggle is to fight oppression, not as it is used in the media as meaning to conquer the world or kill infidels.

Nasaredden says another major misconception regarding her religion is the view of Muslim women.

With only her face, hands and feet uncovered, Nasaredden is a living image of how many westerners view Muslim women -- as an oppressed, marginalized group. Yet, she says that this is not true.

"The biggest reason why we wear the veil is because God told us to do it," she says.

She adds that both men and women are expected to dress modestly and that for women, the attire serves as protection against foreign men.

"We want to be seen for our intellect and personality rather than our physical appearance," she says, though many westerners consider the veil to be a sign that women are subjugated and insignificant or that men force them to cover up.

But in reality, wearing the veil is now optional for women in almost every country where Islam is the dominant faith.

At ASU, she says, this idea of covering to be modest does not really fit with most of the campus, and it is this misunderstanding that makes people think they are oppressed.

On campus, where many female students wear nothing more than tank tops and tiny skirts, foreign-born men of the Muslim faith have a difficult time not gawking.

"Our boys struggle with girls walking around here because they are told to look away from women's exposed bodies, and on this campus it is like, 'Where do I look?' " she says with a smile as she looks at passersby from her seat in front of Einstein's Bagels.

Other misconceptions include assuming foreign-born Muslims come from wastelands of tents and bombed buildings and that the conflict between Israel and Palestine is all about religion.

The MSA has worked to remedy this lack of understanding with an event educating people about Palestine, the advent of Islam Awareness Week, and invitations for Arab and Muslim speakers to discuss modern issues on campus.

Still, stereotypes and assumptions prevail.

Graphic design student Beth McGeehon says Muslims are most often stereotyped for being serious and dressing funny.

She says, "I have heard of people complaining because they don't really adapt to our culture."

Crazy and judgmental

Mormon bashing.

It happens to members of the fastest-growing religion in the United States and has become almost entirely socially acceptable to do.

Theater senior Boyd Branch has heard them all.

As an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Branch is subject to a whole host of modern-day conspiracy theories and all the typical jokes about Mormons, who often are referred to as "Mo-mo's."

Branch says the latest talk around campus involves Michael Crow's allegedly tight relationship with the LDS Church, which was more than suggested in a Nov. 18 Phoenix New Times article that implied Crow was getting a bit too cozy with LDS leadership, and was, to a degree, molding aspects of the University based on the wishes of prominent Mormons.

Branch chuckles as he discusses these theories of proposed Mormon domination. But with a recent history of intense, driven persecution including a law in Missouri that legalized the killing of Mormons, a few silly conspiracies don't look so bad.

Theater senior Elizabeth Peterson, Branch's fiancee, says a lot of people don't even know what a Mormon is.

It is a blanket term used to describe several separate churches that have different beliefs, she says.

LDS is the mainstream branch and has the largest following.

Both Branch and Peterson say it is irritating that the word "Mormon" is now inextricably linked to right-wing Republicanism, even though the church never officially endorses any political candidate.

"It really is mixed," Peterson insists, adding that Democratic candidate John Kerry was a moral Catholic, yet it seems the neo-right has a monopoly on the Christian perspective.

"It's the same with any institution," Branch says. "Do you look at the institution as a living body or at the individuals?"

Branch says negative stereotypes often are the result of the Mormon ideal of proselytizing. Both he and his fiancee have gone on missions, a customary rite of passage for young LDS members.

Branch says that when he tells people about his mission, "I get a sense people have other perspectives that they don't want to tell me. But if you really believe and you don't share it, then what kind of person are you? It's like, if you see a really great movie, generally you want to tell people."

He says that when Mormons go on missions, they do a lot of community service and talk to people who are interested in their religion.

Peterson says Mormons often are unfairly associated with other faith groups who go door-to-door to preach their beliefs -- a practice the LDS church generally recognizes as ineffective.

Aside from the missions, however, there is one pesky issue that just keeps surfacing to haunt and irritate the LDS church. That issue is the church's uncomfortable recent history of polygamy.

Though nearly every world religion has an ancient history of polygamy, LDS is in the limelight, Branch says, because it's in the United States and is more recent. He says the controversy surrounding polygamy is good but becomes dangerous when it is the end point for conversations.

"We get really uncomfortable, but we shouldn't hide or deny it," he says. "It is important to figure out why it did happen in our church, and why it is important that it doesn't happen now."

The LDS church forbids polygamy and has supported legal action against polygamists. New branches of LDS, such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints still practice polygamy in isolated communities.

Christopher Chan, a marketing, international business and supply chain management senior, says he's heard many stereotypes about Mormons.

"People think they are just crazy, or at least the members are really critical," Chan says. "People also think they are really judgmental."

Branch says he wants ASU students to remember that Mormons are people, too. They are all different and, as he says, "We don't have horns."

The default norm

Seth Turken, a Jewish student, is surrounded by Christian beliefs and preaching.

Strolling from Hayden Lawn to the Memorial Union on an average day, Turken passes myriad religious organization tables, the occasional ranting preacher, and is handed fliers regarding everything from house parties to the divinity of Jesus.

The history and political science senior says he firmly believes no religious organizations should be allowed on campus in any way.

"There should not even be the odor of religion," he says.

This belief in strict secularization stems from his all-or-nothing argument that either every single religious perspective should be available, or none should be.

He adds that ASU is a state school, and as such there is no place for religion on campus.

A major issue for Turken is the insensitivity to religious holidays and the Sabbath.

"No one is going to schedule anything on a Sunday morning, and that angers me as a Jew," he says, adding that for him to have a final scheduled on a Friday night is the same as a Christian having class on Sunday.

Wong, with the ASU Intergroup Relations Center, agrees that many religious holidays and observances are overlooked at the University.

"What does it mean to accommodate students?" she says. "It is not like Christian should be the default norm."

Turken takes particular issue with the religious groups that are in no way affiliated with students on campus, such as the ubiquitous Hayden Lawn speakers and community members who pass out religious pamphlets and fliers.

"I don't understand proselytizing," he says. "It is a very un-Jewish concept."

For Turken, religion should be an entirely personal matter, which does not necessitate spreading the word or taking up public time and space.

"It's there if you want it, but it can be extremely divisive," he says.

Christmas decorations and songs blaring out of public buildings are always an issue, Turken says.

"I do appreciate any attempt at Hanukkah decorations; I guess silver and blue are Hanukkah colors, though I don't remember seeing those at synagogue," he says.

The all-or-nothing principle applies to holiday decorations, as well, he says. In a public space, where public funds will be used for decorating, either every religious holiday should be represented, or none should be.

Discussing the recent presidential elections in which religion was at the forefront, Turken mentions the psychological jolt of having a firmly practicing religious man in office.

Neither George Bush Sr. nor Ronald Reagan discussed religion in their campaigns or while in office, he says, mentioning a debate between Reagan and Jimmy Carter during which the moderator asked Reagan what church he attended. Reagan told the moderator it was none of his business.

"For a secular person like me, it was, 'Yeah, stick it to them, Ronnie,' " Turken says.

One of the biggest issues wrapped up with Judaism is the Israel-Palestine conflict. Turken believes that the Arab-Israeli conflict is more about political and economic factors than about religion. He sites Northern Ireland as an example, showing how the conflict has gradually lessened as Catholics have grown closer to economic parity with Protestants.

It is also important for people to understand that to be Jewish does not mean one has to be pro-Israel. Israel is a political construct and does not have to be tied to one's religious identity, he says. Though any Jew can immigrate to Israel and become a citizen, not all Jews would necessarily want to live there.

Nasaredden mentions this as an issue with Muslims on campus as well; not all Arabs are Muslim and not all Muslims are Arab. In fact, only 18 percent are Arab.

Wong says while there is a lot of work to be done, she sees ASU's student body as progressing in the right direction, with religious groups on campus dedicating themselves to educating their fellow students.

"ASU is maturing as a school," she says. "As people feel there is more diversity, it has actually made them feel safer and enabled them to be more empowered and active."

Reach the reporter at katherine.kelberlau@asu.edu.



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