Today’s blog post comes from AUA Director, Ben Orbach. You can email Ben at BenjaminO at creativelearning.org.
Every summer, America’s Unofficial Ambassadors brings on interns to help with our mission of increasing the number of Americans who volunteer in the Muslim World. Our interns support our outreach efforts and programming, and in turn, we offer substantive work experience and the chance to develop professional skills. If things go right, we all get something nice out of the deal. This year, we’ve gotten something a little more.
One of our interns, Rowaida, is a rising senior at Rutgers University. She has brought enthusiasm to our website and Facebook page. Rowaida plunges herself into her work in part because she sees our mission of building mutual understanding between America and the Muslim World through volunteer service as intertwined with her own future.
Born in New Jersey, Rowaida is an Egyptian-American who wears the hijab, or Islamic head covering. Today, with the start of Ramadan, she’ll begin a month of day-long fasting along with some three million other Muslim-Americans and 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide.
Aside from her hard work, Rowaida has brought home for all of us in the office, in a very direct way, why our program is indeed important to life here in America. Unfortunately, Rowaida has dealt with an unexpected amount of discrimination and racism since coming to Washington.
During Rowaida’s first week in our nation’s capital, she was confronted by a passer-by about wearing the hijab. In a scene that would have been comical for its irony if it wasn’t so sad, a man approached Rowaida as she was waiting in line to see the Constitution at the Library of Congress. He told Rowaida that she was “ridiculous” and that her religion was too.
This past week, Rowaida went to an inter-faith event at a church that featured a discussion with a rabbi, a priest, and an imam. After the event,a group of four women approached Rowaida. One woman offered to liberate Rowaida from the “oppression of the hijab.” Another called the Prophet Muhammed a “pedophile.” A third demanded to know where Rowaida had come from, and the fourth questioned why Rowaida’s family had immigrated to the United States to “take our education” – as if that education was a finite good, stolen under the cover of darkness.
Over the last few years, we, as Americans, haveregressed in how we view and speak about Muslims. A 2011 Pew pollshowed that 45 percent of Americans believe Muslims are violent and only 19 percent believe Muslims are respectful of women. A 2010 Pew poll found that 38 percent of Americans hold an unfavorable view of Muslims.
When you hear those numbers, it is easy to think that these are feelings held by people we don’t know, in places that have less diversity than Washington DC. Yet, that simply isn’t true. Hate, racism, and discrimination are everywhere, even in the queue to see the Bill of Rights.
Fortunately, just as there are the ignorant, there are those who seek to learn and do more. One of those persons is Shibrika Pansy an AUA Mosaic Scholarship recipient who we helped to volunteer in Morocco this past spring. Shibrika is a medical researcher from Lockhart, Texas and had never traveled outside the United States. As a volunteer in Morocco, she taught English to children in an orphanage for several weeks.
This Sunday, as part of her Mosaic Scholarship program, she’ll present her experiences to the congregation of her church in Lockhart. She’ll “bring home” a practical picture of building people-to-people partnerships between America and the Muslim World and play a part in challenging stereotypes for an audience that for the most part has not had the chance to engage with this particular “other” directly.
Another person seeking to learn and do more is Kara, our other summer intern who commutes three days a week from Hagerstown to work with us. This week, Kara told Rowaida that she learns something newfrom her about her religion every day. Kara is curious and asks Rowaida questions that are open-ended and non-judgmental.
The issue of discrimination against Muslims may come home most directly for Muslim-Americans like Rowaida, who has handled this adversity with admirable composure, but they are challenges for all of us, no matter our religion or ethnicity.It is invaluable that people like Shibrika, who have had experiences, share them. It is equally critical that those who have questions look for answers in a neutral way, like Kara.
It is also important that all of us, as Americans of all faiths and backgrounds, don’t accept this worsening status quo. If you can volunteer in a Muslim World country, that is great and our initiative is aimed at supporting you to make that as positive experience as possible and to share it with others. But if you can’t volunteer abroad, work on other ways to build tolerance. You can volunteer domestically, participate in initiatives like 20,000 Dialogues, or simply take the time to ask questions in a non-judgmental way. We all have a role to play in protecting our country from this spread of ignorance.