Written by a current MESP student
In Understanding Arabs, Margaret K. Nydell states that since the attacks of 9/11, “Muslims have faced increased discrimination, threats, name-calling, violence, and vandalism (Sikhs have been targeted too).” The chapter talks about the discrimination Muslims receive in the West and I can attest from living in Canada that it is true. I think that the biggest factor of the discrimination is misunderstanding and the negative stigma of being associated with terrorist organizations. Back in Canada and the States I have heard people say things such as, “The Muslims are taking over” or “They need to stop letting Muslims immigrate”. I had never agreed with any of these statements, but I also had never refuted them because I had zero knowledge of Islam and had never spoken to a Muslim before. However, being in the Middle East, interacting with Muslims everyday, and making Muslim friends has been one of the most enlightening and fulfilling opportunities of my life. It is here where stereotypes have begun to be break down for me, stereotypes such as dress, and women being forced to cover. For example, within my service project where I teach English to women I have one student who wears a niqab, the majority wear modest dress and a hijab, and one who wears a t-shirt, jeans, and leaves her hair uncovered. I might add that the girl, who dresses in casual clothes and does not cover her head, has a sister who wears the traditional coverings and a hijab. When asked why they dress differently, the answer was as simple as “preference”. Another stereotype is one of turbans. In the West, people often mislabel Sikhs as Muslim because of the turban. I find this interesting because in my time here in the Middle East, I have never once seen a Muslim man wear a turban. Ever. I think that there is also this stereotype that Muslims are mean and hostile people. From my experience here I have experienced more hospitality and kindness from people than I ever have in a North American setting.
I think that the greatest lesson I have learned in being in the Middle East so far is that when you keep a people group at arms length it is easy to desensitize yourself to their humanity. The understanding of others often comes through tangible associations and positive interactions. It is true that 9/11 and extremist groups such as ISIS have given Islam an incredibly bad reputation, but it is more important for people to come to recognize that this is not Islam and it is a great injustice to associate Islam and the Muslim people with radical groups such as these. We live in a crazy time where fear of terrorism runs rampant. I can’t change that, nor can I change the politics of the world. I can however choose how I will react. I can choose to alienate an entire people out of fear or I can submit myself to understanding and embracing the “other” until they are no longer “other”. I am by no means an expert on intercultural relations or anything of the sort; but if I had one piece of advice to give it would be this: expand your worldview, get to know and understand people, and love unconditionally as Christ loves us.