Being Muslim on a Christian campus

By Lindsay Cameron


That’s what came from Nara Almutairi’s mother when Nara told her she was coming to America to pursue an education with her husband and her children.

Nara tells me this now as we sit in the Eagle’s Nest, myself in jeans and herself in a black cloak and head scarf.  

I have glanced at the students in the booth, just behind Nara, wondering if anyone will express judgment or intolerance towards us.  

But students are laughing and conversing around us, paying no attention to us, as Nara says to me that her mom wasn’t sobbing because she would miss her daughter.  

She cried because she thought Nara would never return home to Saudi Arabia.

She thought America would kill her daughter.

• • •

This isn’t uncommon, according to Ashland University student Hussain Albreiki. He is from the United Arab Emirates.  

From all the bombing and destruction the U.S. has done in the Middle East, Hussain says they are bombarded with images on their media that depict Americans as violent—a nation that has total disregard for the individual lives of the people in the Middle East. 

Sound familiar?

It’s hard to blame their media for the slant—whether intentional or not—when the American media has done the same to us. 

Since 9/11, Americans have seen footage upon footage of riots and outbursts and violence and death and bombs and “dangerous people” in the Middle East. 

Most Muslim International students at AU have come to Ashland, Ohio, with the initial fear that America is a dangerous place. 

They came to America not expecting to receive kindness or acceptance, even though America is a nation that boasts freedom of religion.

From the American perspective, it might be expected that maybe Muslims wouldn’t receive kindness or acceptance.

FBI statistics released this year show that hate crimes in 2010 against Muslims rose by 50 percent from 2009.

An article in CNN written by Sumbul Ali-Karamali, lawyer, spokesperson for American Muslims, and author of The Muslim Next Door: the Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing, said nearly all the Muslim professors she knows receive hate mail and accusations of being terrorists.

She explained that violence is not the only problem—the spread of misinformation about Islam (for example, a tall tale that Muslims, for some reason, cannot abide dogs) contributes to Islamophobia.  

Contrary to national statistics, anecdotally evidenced, Ashland, Ohio, seems to be an exception to the places where discrimination of Muslims occurs often.

• • •

Nara sits and laughs with me, leaning forward over the table, leaning into our conversation.  

She has beautiful dark eyes with long lashes that seem to lighten when she tells me how happy she is in America, how free she feels, how independent.  

She smiles when she tells me how much she loves Ashland.

Nara says her mom was still crying when Nara returned to Saudi Arabia nine months after first coming to America.  

It might appear as though her mom had never stopped. She cried when Nara boarded the plane. She cried on the phone when Nara called her.  She cried on her daughter’s return.

Now still a student at AU, her mother’s crying hasn’t changed Nara’s mind.

Nara loves America.

And if it’s okay with her husband, she wants to stay here.

• • •

It’s not easy being a female Muslim in America.   

On some Sunday mornings, before regular hours, the Rec Center opens for the Muslim women on campus.  

Since it is a part of their religion to remain modest and unrevealed to men, only women employees work these days, and the Muslim women go swimming.  

Their values are not compromised and they are able to enjoy themselves in their bathing suits.

Unlike men, women wear clothing that is strikingly different from American clothing.  

Many wear black abayas, which means “cloak” in Arabic, and often have colorful scarves around their heads in order to cover their hair, a preservation of their beauty.  

They stand out in crowds.   

Female or male of any ethnicity—it’s difficult for any International student to integrate into a non-diverse culture such as Ashland.  

According to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau results, 95.8 percent of residents in Ashland are Caucasian.

The Arabs on campus, and especially those living off campus, are greatly outnumbered.

Carolyn Presutti, anchor for Voice of America News, reported on September 06, 2012, “The number of Muslims living in America has increased by two-thirds since the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil 11 years ago. Many emigrated here and they live with discrimination from some Americans who connect all Muslims with the attacks.”

…As if learning a new language and adapting to a new culture isn’t enough of a challenge.

But this doesn’t happen often in Ashland.

Scott Parillo, International Student Advisor in the Department of International Student Services, says many Muslims have gone to the farmer’s markets and participated in community events never experiencing discrimination in public.  

He has only learned of a handful of discriminatory incidents occurring in his time at Ashland—none of which have been violent or dangerously threatening.  

He knows that there once was a drive-by where someone yelled an obscenity, and in the past some mean high school students have reacted verbally, but he cannot give away specific details for confidentiality concerns.

Once both the Muslim students and the Americans can see past cultural issues, the atmosphere usually becomes more social.  

Scott knows of many students being considered as close as family members to people in the Ashland community.

“I have yet to see a situation where people haven’t figured it out,” Scott says.

Some people are nervous because of the stereotypes that arose from 9/11.  

Some Ashlanders have family members fighting in the war.  Some are simply uneducated on the difference in culture.  

But Scott says that these issues usually wash away after they have spent time with the students, and what they learn is that hospitality is so much a part of the Arab culture that Muslims are very eager to share it with others and answer questions.

Many families in Ashland who apply to be homestay families for the International students will specifically request to house students from Saudi Arabia.

“Ashland is a special place,” Scott says. “Very welcoming.”

The Muslims at AU might have expected differently of America at first.  

From the bombing and destruction in the Middle East, the psychology of the Arabs is such that, Hussain explains, it seems as though America has a personal problem with people of their ethnicity.  

Hussain says the people of the Middle East see all these “bad countries with really bad presidents” but wonder why they are the only ones being attacked—why America is only attacking the Middle East.  

Over time, the original reasons for America going to war in the Middle East seem to have been forgotten, and this isolation has caused Arabs to internalize that the war is really based on race.  

From Hussain’s perspective, anymore, it feels like a war on religion, rather than a war on terrorism.

This is why they expect to be hated when they come here, and they are surprised to encounter otherwise.

• • •

When Hussain came to America, he first lived in Colorado before moving to Ashland.  

He and a friend were waiting for a bus in the city.  She was wearing a scarf.  A man approached Hussain and asked them if they were Muslims, with the tone of voice as though he was searching for a reason to give them a piece of his mind.  

Hussain remained calm and answered the man’s questions.

A police officer witnessed this and walked over.  He asked Hussain, “Is everything okay? Did he say something offensive?  We can charge him if he is bothering you.”

Hussain vouched for the man.  He didn’t want to press charges—there was no problem—and Hussain just wanted to get along with people. He was just waiting on a bus.

Hussain explained that the man was only asking questions about their religion.

The police officer told Hussain that the man was misrepresenting America, saying, “We have freedom of religion.”  He escorted the man away from Hussain in order to be proactive.

Initially, Arab students are afraid of the police.  They come afraid that they will break a law with which they are unfamiliar or do not understand.  

They come afraid that people will misunderstand their culture and ways of life and report them on incorrect assumptions.  

Nara’s mom warned her not to spank her children when she came to America out of fear that someone might report her for child abuse on the chance that someone did not understand that discipline in their culture sometimes involves spanking.  

It is more accepted there.

Scott brings in officers from the Ashland Police Department as a part of orientation for international students to dispel the fear that the police are out to get them, and rather, that the police are looking out for their best interest as well, as Hussain found out.

But although these Muslim students have experienced kindness in America, the post-9/11 nation is still not without its prejudices.

Jeff Wurm teaches English as a second language to the students in the ACCESS program at AU. He has been here for three years. He knows what it is like for these Muslim students to come to a new culture—in high school, he was an exchange student in Belgium. He can relate to the Muslim students’ uneasy feelings when people question them. He remembers being questioned about U.S. policies and reasons for going to war when he was in Belgium. Since then, he has studied in France, Mexico, and Taiwan.

Jeff enjoys seeing the Arabic students excel in English. He loves the point at which they move on from becoming students in a foreign culture to academic, high-achieving students. He helps them get to this transitional point, which involves teaching them about American culture in addition to the language.

We talk in his small office, the door is open, International students of all colors and clothing walking by and smiling, their conversations our pleasant white noise. This is floor where the women gather in between classes and Jeff listens to them cackling from down the hallway while he works in his office, talking rambunctiously, sometimes several at a time or unison, in their native language, and it sounds like a hoot.

Jeff tells me that many Muslims come into class with concerns and questions about American culture. The women often feel as though they are stared at in public, and they question if they are being judged or stereotyped negatively. Jeff explains to me that a natural nervousness or self-consciousness could be contributing to the heightened awareness of others’ glances or stares, and that women in their culture usually do not go shopping without their husbands. Shopping alone or with other women is a new experience for them in itself.

Jeff says he and other teachers try to tell the Muslim students that Americans are not looking at them, thinking, “Oh my God, you’re going to blow up something!” He says he tries to explain that people are just curious, people are just confused, people just don’t know how to react.

• • •

Asia Aljalhami, a young woman who came from Saudi Arabia with her brother and cousin to AU, says some people really just don’t know anything about people who practice Islam.

Asia says one of her classmates came over to Asia’s apartment to work on a class project. When in the presence of women, and within the home, Muslim women are allowed to wear what Americans would consider “normal” clothing. They may go without the abayas and the scarves.

When the girl walked into the apartment and saw that Asia was not wearing her scarf, and instead saw Asia’s tightly-curled, black hair, the shocked girl inquired. Asia explained that she wears the dress for her religion as an act of modesty, a preservation of her womanly beauty out of respect for her husband and herself.

The girl was stunned. She had no idea.

She told Asia she had been praying for her often. She thought Asia wore the scarf because Asia didn’t have any hair.

She thought Asia had cancer.

“They just don’t know,” Asia said.

• • •

But as for Americans being alarmed by Muslim attire, Hussain knows that some Americans judge them by the images they’ve seen on the America media.

Ashland is a small place and people are “quite sensitive here,” Hussain says. He has noticed that many people keep their distance. He will say hello to students whom he has had class with all semester and they won’t say hello in return. Most people are friendly, but it’s harder to actually befriend an American, Hussain says.

It’s almost as though they think, Hussain says, “When I see you, I think that reminds me of something I saw on TV, and that reminds me of…BOOM!…so I just keep my distance.”

Hussain chuckles after this statement. It’s so ridiculous, yet true, that it’s comical. Because of the attack on the World Trade Centers, their religion has been associated with terrorism.

“Islam says that 9/11 is wrong,” Hussain says. “You cannot do those things in Islam. Nothing in Islam shows that you go and attack people in the name of Islam.”

Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam is a religious branch that stems from the teachings of Abraham. They all have the same roots. The three religions are more similar than many realize because many judge the religion by its appearances. The means to practicing the religion is culturally different—the songs, the clothes, the prayers, the rituals. It looks different. The assumption that its entire moral foundation is corrupt based on its appearances is incorrect. In fact, the moral foundation is strikingly similar to Christianity’s.

Muslims frequently renounced the claim that the attack on the World Trade Centers was done in Allah’s name. They never supported the attack. They have always disagreed with it. As Hussain says, Muslims worked in the World Trade Centers and were killed that day, too, along with people of every other race.

Islam doesn’t support terrorism, but still Muslims are called terrorists in America.

When Hamdan Alderei lived in Alabama in 2009, after leaving Saudi Arabia, but before coming to AU, he was called a terrorist by a drunken man.

“I don’t do anything for him. That was the only one. No one has said something bad for me or my country or my religion,” Hamdan said, in stunted English.

Out of Alabama, West Virginia, and Ashland, Hamdan says that Ashland has been his favorite place to live. He knows that some people are not friendly simply because they “have no idea about other countries,” but he has never been discriminated on AU’s campus or in Ashland.

“All American people are so nice,” Hussain said. “They are so amazing. Even the ones who are judgmental—they don’t say it to your face. They feel like that’s rude.”

• • •

Even though these Muslim students are told otherwise, they already know what some Americans are thinking about them.

In his small Patterson office, even though I know some people are genuinely confused and uneducated about Islam, I ask Jeff anyway, “But do you think people really are thinking when they see them, ‘Oh my God, you’re going to blow up something!’”

Jeff didn’t hesitate. Didn’t even flinch.


• • •

One may think it’s inappropriate that Jeff admitted this.

It’s not.

It’s good because it’s the truth. It’s the truth about not just Ashland, but that everywhere in America there exist people who are fearful of Middle Eastern culture. It’s true that everywhere Americans are bombarded with messages over the media that depict Middle Easterners as violent, aggressive, and un-Christian. Many Americans aren’t even aware of the differences between the nations—the skin color, the facial structure, the headdresses, the religion—all of it means the same thing. All of it is alarming. Because of 9/11, all of them are dangerous.

As Hussain says, Americans don’t ever see any good about Muslims on television. They don’t see Muslims having fun, doing good deeds, being normal, happy people.

They don’t get to hear the women cackling and laughing, talking a million words a minute, in the bathrooms and hallways on the third floor of Patterson in between classes.

They don’t get to witness Nara and I talking in a public place on campus, two people of different ethnicities laughing together and talking about the differences of our cultures, and receiving zero judgmental stares or hints of intolerance from all the Caucasian pairs.

Americans don’t get to see the inside of Asia’s apartment. They don’t smell the smoked-wood incense she burns out of respect and hospitality for her guests. They don’t get to taste the dates she offers them and the lunch she provides them, even if they arrive at least three hours after lunch and is closer to dinnertime. They don’t get to see the pictures of what seems like dozens of siblings and cousins of all ages—children dressed in brightly colored abayas and dresses of such foreign and gorgeous patterns. They don’t get to see her when she lets her hair down in the presence of other women.

They don’t get to see who she is really is—who all these people really are.

The only reason Jeff’s “yes” is bad is because it’s alarming that Americans think this way. What Jeff said is a true fact, and a sad reality. This is the way America is now.

But it doesn’t have to be.

• • •

In 2011, the Washington Post-ABC News published an article on a poll releasing Americans’ opinions on Muslims in the U.S. Since their poll in October 2001, Americans perceived themselves to be more understanding of Islam in 2010, where 43 percent polled said they understand Islam (34 percent in 2001) and 55 percent said they do not (65 percent in 2001). Though the number of people who perceived themselves to understand Islam may have grown, the amount of people with a favorable view of the religion has decreased since 2001, where 47 percent said they had a favorable view of Islam, which since has declined to 37 percent in 2010. And although more people now feel they have a better understanding of Islam, in 2010, 31 percent of people believed that Islam, excluding extremists, encourages violence, as compared to 14 percent believing so in January 2002.

In 2006 and 2010, about 70 percent of people polled said an accurate assessment of themselves would reveal no prejudice against Muslims. Compare this to a poll in 2000 on Jews, where 93 percent of Americans had no prejudice.

This representation of America may or may not hold true for Ashland, which is currently unknown. But according to Hussain, Asia, and Nara, most Muslims would probably say that Ashland is more accepting and understanding than the image these statistics create.

The worst hate incident towards international students in Ashland, to Jeff’s knowledge, was a rock thrown at a Taiwanese student by a white teenager who yelled, “Go home, Chinese!” Other than the few radical, extremists who exist in every community, Jeff sees hope for America to be more accepting and to move past the fears and prejudices of 9/11.

Jeff believes that as children in the community come to college at AU and interact with Muslims, they will go home and educate their parents. The hope of America lies not only in promoting awareness of culture and changing the stereotypes on the media, but it also lies in educating the next generation so that they may alter the older generation’s preconceived notions of Muslims.

Andrea Bihari, an ACCESS instructor and colleague of Jeff’s, says that from her interaction with the students, even her eyes were opened.

“So many things that I believe about people from the Middle East were not true,” she said.

Changing the stereotype in America takes one person at a time.

“I think it already has been reversed in the educated community. It think it comes from the outside. The people who still have that grudge. Ignorance. The people who live in their own little world,” Jeff said.

Exposure to Arab culture and the Muslim religion will change American mindsets, just as the Arab’s mindsets were changed about Americans.

“I’ve been living here for a long time and I have seen that American people are nice, and most of them don’t care what religion you are,” Hussain says.

• • •

Asia and a friend from college have their ears pierced at the mall in Mansfield last May. Asia wears her scarf. Afterwards, they visit Wal-Mart. She and her friend walk in the parking lot back to the car. Their ears are still hurting from the piercings.

That’s when a Caucasian woman approaches Asia. She is middle-aged, wearing casual clothes. Blonde. Short hair. She seems friendly.

The woman holds out her flat hand, palm down, as if to brace the air between her and Asia. She is going to say something important. She wants Asia’s attention. It is a gesture to show Asia that she is serious. She means what she is about to say.

“You are so beautiful,” she tells Asia. “You are beautiful.”

Asia is a little stunned.

“I’d love if I had a religion where I could show it,” she tells Asia, saying that she probably would not have the guts to wear clothing as bold or different as Asia’s abaya. “But you are so powerful for wearing your scarf. You’re beautiful.”

That moment, Asia is happy. Someone has said something nice about her religion. She feels respected. She feels that not only her clothing is accepted, not just her appearance, but herself is accepted.

This woman has acknowledged Asia’s internal beauty, the strength and bravery of proclaiming and living her religion through her clothing. It is an irony—that Asia is called beautiful when the only part of her that can be seen is her face. While external, physical beauty is concealed, the beauties of integrity, joy, and strength, are revealed.

It only took a moment for this woman to look past the obvious differences and see something she admired. This woman has said something that Asia will never forget.

Asia says “thank you.”