I grew up in a very conservative Christian household in a suburban neighborhood development where most of our neighbors were people who actually got to make decisions about how their home was built, including my parents.
There was a large Catholic church a few minutes away and several various denominations of Christian churches (including some Mormon churches) scattered around the perimeter of the neighborhood.
But to my knowledge… there were no mosques or synagogues nearby. I read Night by Elie Wiesel in ninth grade (and I’m teaching it right now), so I really only associated the Jewish religion with the Holocaust and Hanukkah, but I didn’t actually know any Jews. I was never assigned any reading about the Islamic religion and didn’t do any on my own, so I really only associated the Islamic religion with scenes from the TV show 24 and the terrorist agenda from the 9-11 attacks.
If I’m being honest, I really didn’t interact with any Jewish or Muslim individuals until I became a teacher in a school with religious diversity: larger populations of Muslims, Jews, Non-Religious, and Christians; and smaller populations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Hindus, Buddhists…
And so, here, I am going to reflect on some of the major breakthroughs I have had in my process of dismantling the Islamophobia (prejudice against Islam or Muslims) I was taught by not really being taught anything intentionally at all.
- I was watching the BBC TV show Orphan Black a few years ago with my sister. I was horrified at one of the storylines of an extremist Christian family who quoted the Bible to justify a lot of the disturbing choices they were making. As I was watching it, I remember hoping that people who aren’t Christian would not assume all Christians believe some of the things presented in this show. I identify as Christian, but I would never associate some of their beliefs with mine.
- During election season, when news came out about members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) actively supporting Donald Trump, I realized (for the first time) that the KKK identify as Christians. I now understand the privilege of being part of a dominant religion (Christianity) in this country, because my faith practice (although labeled Christian) has never been mistaken for the ideology of the KKK.
- Westboro Baptist Church: Where do I even start? Even if you google them, you will quickly learn how loud they profess their hate speech. Their URL for their home page is atrocious, so much so that it is blocked by my school when I tried to click on it. Even though they identify as Christian, no one has ever demonized me or lumped me to the same extent as this “church”.
- I’m a public school teacher, so I legally cannot really talk about my faith unless someone asks me and I choose to respond. Last year, a student asked me what I did over a weekend, and I mentioned that I went to church. He seemed surprised. When he asked why, I told him that my church is an important community for me and it helps shape how I live my life. He told me that he had never met someone who claimed to love Jesus and like people who weren’t Christians. This made me sad, but it also encouraged me. I have the privilege of walking through my life with my religious affiliation to be shared only if I choose. It’s never really assumed. A Muslim student recently told me that although she wears her hijab faithfully, really the choice is of the heart. She explained that even if she didn’t have a hijab on her head, it’s a matter of how she presents her heart. I truly understand this because I feel similarly in my relationship with Jesus: I hope my heart looks different because of my faith, no matter where I wander in the world.
- During my first year of teaching, I scheduled a guest speaker for October. I was excited because I had invited a former professor who happened to be a black man with a Phd. in to discuss some of the themes of our novel. I was very irritated when more than a third of my students were gone the day he came and furiously typed up a make up assignment. All of my Muslim students had been absent, and I had wanted them to see an educated black man as their teacher (I won’t deny how I also felt like I would somehow earn some make-believe gold stars for knowing an educated black man, and I hope I have made progress in this area). When my Muslim students came back, they had to explain what Eid was to me, and I learned that it was an important holiday to their community that was actually celebrated twice in their lunar calendar year. In many countries where Islam is the dominant religion, it is a national holiday where businesses and schools close. I had never even heard of it. Then, to my surprise, I found out that during June finals at the end of the year, many of my Muslim students had been fasting for Ramadan. No one complained or asked for any special recognition. It was actually really inspiring and beautiful to see. My holidays are widely acknowledged in the U.S. I always get two weeks off for Christmas as a teacher, and I used to even get the Monday after Easter off.
What if students had teachers who truly understood fundamental components to their belief systems? What if we actively interrupted the media images of terrorism and Islam and started to see that Islam really is a faith of peace. What if we actively interrupted the media images of white men who are painted as troubled and began calling it Christian terrorism, which is a lot of what it is? I ask this because I am trying to poke holes in my comfort of being in the dominant religion in this society. Of course, in many parts of the world, there are many examples of persecuted Christians, but in my daily life, I am freely able to worship my God without trouble, and that is a huge privilege.
At the beginning of the April, we as a staff were informed about posters that began in the UK and were spotted at the University of Minnesota called “Punish a Muslim Day”. Some schools responded with “Love a Muslim” day.
This is trauma I don’t have to deal with in this country. And I suppose that is what I am asking us all (especially my Christian community) to consider. What are some ways that we can learn about our Muslim neighbors? What are some ways we can work to dismantle Islamophobia in our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and cities?