HAMMOND– Mujahed (M.J.) Ahmad, current student body vice-president at Southeastern Louisiana University, was an 11-year-old student sitting in Mrs. Blackburn’s sixth grade classroom at Central Academy in Ann Arbor, Michigan when Arabic-Muslim extremists attacked the twin towers on 9/11. It was the first time he had ever heard the word “terrorist.” In the weeks to follow, it would also be the first time he ever felt like a foreigner and even a suspect in his own country, simply, he feels, because he is of “Arab” descent.
Ahmad, born in the U.S. to descendants of Palestine and Brazil says, “Without doubt, it saddens me that a group of 19 men were able to stereotype a population of over a billion Muslims.”
Members of the Baton Rouge Center of Islam share Ahmad’s sentiments. In an interview, they described the reactions of once-friendly Americans towards them. The mosque’s Imam (an Islamic religious position) said, “People acted very angry at us. We couldn’t leave our homes to buy groceries or to even buy gas because we were afraid of violence.”
Ahmad says, “Before September of 2001, I doubt many Americans knew what Islam or Muslim are, and after September of 2001, I believe more Americans than ever are misled and given the wrong impression about Islam by the media.”
According to studies by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the largest Arab-American grassroots civil rights group, non-Muslim Americans who buy into stereotypical media hype have a fear of American Muslims because they believe all people of the Islamic religion to be conspirators of destruction against all other religious faiths. Arab-Americans, due to these misconceptions, fear that their civil rights and safety are in jeopardy.
Ahmad believes that Americans are privileged to have opportunities to learn about Arab-Americans and how they live their daily lives. One such opportunity exists at SLU.
James Kirylo, professor in the Teaching and Learning Department of Education, offers a course entitled “Dimensions of Diversity for Education: Students, Families, Cultures, and Communities.” He encourages students to explore and discuss ways a pluralistic society can celebrate their differences and thus live in a unified way while maintaining diversity. He requires his students to take a “cultural plunge“ into something they fear or makes them feel uncomfortable.
“Engage in authentic communication,” Kirylo says. “Go to to a mosque and you’ll be surprised at the commonalities that we do have.”
During the course, Kirylo discusses some little-known commonalities. For example, the three monolithic religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all share one common denominator, Abraham.” In addition, all religions have varying degrees of extremists, radicals and conservatives. Finally, a typical common thread among people of all faith is the universal concept of “love.”
Understanding gleaned in the course enlighten and empower students, Kirylo believes, and he said, “contributes significantly to the great country that we are.”
Ahmad’s advice supports Kirylo’s idea of a cultural plunge. “People need to go to the source of Islam,” Ahmad says, “and separate what the true religion of Islam says from what is portrayed in the media.”
U.S. military fighting in the Middle East are catapulted into a dangerous yet very insightful cultural experience.
“You can’t blame, hate or question everyone in one race ,” says Kevin Shirley, a 22-year-old marine who has been stationed in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. Despite being deceived and shot at by Arab insurgents, he sees an obvious difference in the type of people he encounters in battle and his fellow citizens. “If you’re American, then you’re good with me. Some people just move to America simply to have a better life.”
As student body vice-president of SLU and as a recipient of various academic honors and awards, Ahmad is striving to be an Arab-American Muslim on the path to success and a “better life.”
Ahmad describes with amusement a misconception he has witnessed often in his own home. “It’s funny,” he says, “every time, I see the same dazed face as she opens the door and welcomes [my friends]. They tell me, ‘I didn’t know your mom can speak English.’” Most assume she is an immigrant who cannot speak English, simply because she wears a vial. Ahmad says most people are unaware that Muslims usually speak more than two languages.
The Baton Rouge Center of Islam welcomes visitors and will readily answer any questions about the Islamic faith. Also, the ADC website reveals basic misconceptions concerning Islam, such as explanations about jihad, the true God of Islam, and the relationship between the terms Islamic, Muslim, and Arab.