By Matthew Potter
A few weeks ago, I helped coordinate the Muslim Student Association’s first One Islam event of the semester. Our One Islam events serve to highlight the diversity of culture among Muslim people who, in my experience, are often perceived as a monolithic group. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and so we strive to celebrate each of their respective cultures, while all being united by the shared religion of Islam. For this particular event we focused on the country of Syria, served delicious Syrian cuisine, heard a Syrian student speak about her culture and views on the ongoing refugee crisis, held (after sunset) prayer, had a competitive game of trivia, and rounded out the night with a vibrant bout of dabke, a folk dance found throughout the Levant. The event was a success and I was extremely proud to see our club come together with both our members as well as a large number of students from all around campus.
As you may have noticed, I used the word “our” when referring to this event. I am not a Muslim. And this is a large part of what I want to write about here—being an ally.
When I was a child, my favorite neighbor was one of the most kind and caring people I have ever met. He was a journalist for the newspaper, an active community member, and a friend; he also was a Muslim from Pakistan. I always knew his religion, but as a child differences aren’t really the type of thing that people notice as significant, at least I sure didn’t. Every day after school I’d run straight from the bus stop for my daily hug. Sometimes I would help, or even just watch, with some gardening. It was always funny seeing his, and his wife’s, immaculate lawn compared to our respectable, but much more “relaxed” style of landscaping. The couple always sent heaping gift baskets for my sister and me on holidays and greeted us with a smile and kindness. Those visits were a highlight of my childhood. One anecdote of note was when I went over to say hello after school one day, and after asking how his day was going, he told me in jest that he was starving because his wife never feeds him. I didn’t want to offend so I continued our conversation, but after I left I went home and asked my mother if I could bring my dinner to him since he was starving. Needless to say, both they and my parents had a good laugh at that.
So as I got older I was always a bit baffled when I would hear people speak ill of Islam, or I would hear demonizing rhetoric in the media; how could Muslims be bad people when one of the best people I know is a Muslim? I often wondered.
Later while in college here at UNF, I have made many more friends who are Muslim and through these relationships I have become active with the Muslim Student Association. Jokingly, I have referred to myself as the ‘token-white-guy’, but in reality I have always been welcomed warmly just as any other member of the group would be. Last semester I was even added as a member of the cabinet in the role of Service Coordinator. With this position in addition to my role on the Better Together at UNF Leadership Team, I have been able to help foster a safe space for groups of different worldviews, and this includes the One Islam: Syria event.
While advertising the event I got an email from a professor requesting to bring her graduate-level diversity class. Apparently she had been seeking an event involving Muslims. Of course the club was eager to have a whole class attend so we extended the invitation. Since I was unaware of the specific purpose she wished the event would serve for her class, I clarified that the One Islam events are more-so focused on culture than religion. Her response intrigued me and it is a sentiment that I feel is very important and one of the main goals for MSA on campus; she told me that she just wanted to show that Muslims are people too.
The idea is so obvious, but for many such an idea isn’t at the forefront of their everyday thought. Unfortunately, diversity isn’t as important of a factor in their lives and people often stick mostly to their own. As someone who has been active with MSA, I have been asked multiple times why I have taken such an interest in Islam and Muslims. I have always responded the same way—they are my friends. When helping tabling for club events, I have even seen passersby smile, read our club sign, and witness the change in their expression from a friendly to a nervous one. This type of prejudice is a reality for many people of different backgrounds.
Last year there was a PEW research poll about the favorability of different religions in the eyes of Americans. Sadly, Muslims were marked on the bottom of this list. The interesting part to me though, is that for people who know a Muslim, the average favorability went up significantly; the same went for every other religious or non-religious group. What this tells me is that people’s unfavorable view of different groups other than their own is often largely a derivative of misunderstanding. People naturally view those who believe differently as a separate ‘other’, while really we are all just “people too.”
I have heard this phenomenon referred to as the Pal Al/ice Rule and I think that it is one of the most vital results of diversity and being an ally; interacting with those with whom you disagree, not only allows you to personally grow, but literally makes you think of them as real human beings. Humanity is rich with a plethora of colors, cultures, creeds, and beliefs. Each of these make our species all the more beautiful and losing any one of them would be a detriment to society.
One Islam: Syria was a success in this. We came together to learn, eat, smile, laugh, and dance. We are all human and that is to be celebrated. I urge you to go out and make a friend who you disagree with, even fundamentally so. Dialogue across difference is a cornerstone for civilized society and the more you realize that we have more in common than we have differences, the more all of us will be able to live harmoniously. It is not enough for people to work for the well-being of ourselves only: at interfaith events we all come together and learn to work for the well-being of all.