Cradling Civilization: Sharing culture in the face of stereotypes

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Every Friday afternoon the basement of the students’ center at SF State becomes a place of expression and peace for the Muslim Student Association. Rhythmic and song-like, the group recites the five daily prayers from the Quran, the religious text of Islam. They form four rows of men, all on three feet wide and twenty feet long strips of bright red rugs. Women make up the last few colorful rows draped in pale yellow, red and blue. Barefoot, the group recites in a series of prostration, where one goes from standing then bends over halfway to kneel upon the rug. They then bow their heads to the floor to praise, glorify and humble oneself in front of Allah (God). Their motions are careful and in unison, like a dance. The act of standing and kneeling is to clean the body, and release breath, which if held in can lead to health problems. It also helps focusing.

This congregational prayer is called the Jummah and is led by Danial Shahbaz, the president of the MSA at SF State. Today he is wearing a dark wool pea coat cleanly buttoned up with a black scarf elegantly wrapped around his neck. He has piercing, dark eyes and neatly trimmed facial hair. His dark framed glasses suggest a seriousness which is also conveyed in his posture. His smile is warm, and as welcoming as his laugh. “Out of all the groups on campus we are the only ones that have our own room and this room to pray in on Fridays,” Shahbaz says. He feels at home at SF State since his Muslim community has been recognized and accommodated by the university.

Spending time with the MSA is a great way to become educated on the reality of the Muslim culture while undoing the stereotypes that the American media has brainwashed consumers into believing. For one, Muslims respect women and recognizes them as equals. Shahbaz explains that the women stand behind the men in prayer not as a way to show dominance or exclusion, but out of respect and modesty. Shahbaz says, “We are here to pray and speak to God. Men can be very distracted by the female figure so we stand in front of the women out of respect.”

Dr. Dina Ibrahim, an Associate Professor in the Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts says the media paints Muslim women as submissive and domineered. “Because of the media, an American sees a Muslim woman wearing a hijab and thinks she is being forced to wear it out of shame when it is a choice.” Wearing a hijab, which looks like a scarf worn around the head, is a sign of maturity and respect towards religion and Allah. Alaa El- Saad from NPR.org says she wears a hijab to exercise her freedom to be Muslim and to be different. “To be honest, I also like to wear it to be different. I don’t usually like to do what everyone else is doing. I want to be an individual, not just part of the crowd,” El- Saad says.

The MSA is not all serious either, after prayer they hang out and play games, goof off. Shahbaz asks, “Yeah, we will play Trivial Pursuit later if you want to join us?” The MSA are open to newcomers and those interested in learning more about their community and the Muslim culture. Sam Hadwan, vice president of the MSA says, “Anyone can join us and feel welcome.”

On March 16, 17 and 18 the MSA hosted Islam awareness week. (MSA hosts one every semester) The events were held on campus in front of the Cesar Chavez building and on the grass area. It is an opportunity for SF State students to be educated on Islam and undo the damage the American media has done to public opinion of Muslims. Zishan Safdar, a member of MSA says, “We will be discussing the misconceptions about Islam and stereotypes about Islamic women.” Each day had a different topic of discussion. On Wednesday the 16th, the topic discussed was Islam awareness. On the 17th they talked the women in Islam, and on the Friday the 18th, they held a “Jummah in the sun” prayer session on the lawn in the quad. After the prayer, they held a free barbecue as a way to give back. “Charity is a big part of Muslim tradition, giving honoring god,” Shahbaz says.

Another campus group from the Middle Eastern community is the General Union of Palestinian Students. They have their own room located in the Cesar Chavez building, mezzanine level 100B. Aymen Abdel Halim is a graduate student at SF State and is a Palestinian. Halim says, “GUPS offers a fantastic opportunity for students to ask questions and learn more about Palestine, and also gives students the chance to take part in social justice causes regarding Palestine. The group is open to everyone and encourages people to come to their meetings.”

Palestinian students also have their own mural on the Cesar Chavez building, above the bookstore entrance. The mural, painted by Fayeq Oweis and Susan Greene, is a dedication to Edward Said, an Arab-American professor, writer and activist. According to Oweis, bordering the mural is a quote from Said’s famous book, Orientalism, in which he discusses the stereotypes associated with the word “Oriental”. The quote reads, “Humanism is the only, and I would go so far as saying, the final resistance we have against inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.” On the bottom of the Mural is the quote in traditional Arabic language and calligraphy. The mural was made to educate students on the Palestinian community on campus.

On Saturday March 12 the Arab Cultural and Community Center hosted an Arab Women Conference at the San Mateo Public Library. The conference highlighted Arab women in lecture, music, photos, poetry and artistic performance. Covering topics like Arab women’s health, political activism, artistic expression, relationships, gender roles and Arab women living in America. According to the ACCC, the conference illuminated, “diverse, powerful and non-conventional narratives of Arab women that have committed their life’s work to challenging injustice through various mediums and who have become inspirational to our community.”

The ACCC is a nonprofit organization that promotes Arab art and culture, addressing and enriching the Arab American Community. They provide social services and cross cultural events open to anyone.

Unlike the majority of America that stereotypes the Muslim and Arab community, SF State is a place of acceptance and expression. It is a campus that has been welcoming to many Muslims and those of Arab decent. Although they are a group long misunderstood outside campus walls, at SF State there are plenty of occasions to become educated on and interact with this vibrant growing community. The university has a strong and vivacious women professors who are of Middle Eastern descent that are available for students to learn from and reach out to. The Muslim and Arab community is represented on campus with murals, student groups and ethnic studies classes. But are students outside the community paying attention and are there any attempts being made to try and understand them?

Off campus is a different story, where negative and violent perceptions of the Middle East are projected by the American media that frame and skew reality for entertainment. Sadly, Fox News can not even properly identify Egypt on a map. In January the news outlet owned by media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, posted a map, used previously, depicting the Middle East showing Egypt where Iraq should be, between Syria and Iran.

The American media is shaping the way Americans negatively view the Middle East. “The majority of America sees Middle Eastern people as barbaric, uncivilized, inhuman, not-normal, terrorists who want to destroy America,” says Dr. Ibrahim. The American people continue to soak up these stereotypes and skewed perceptions to re- affirm their existing beliefs and stay within their comfort zones. “People soak up the stories on say, Fox news, to re-affirm the right wing ideology, they like debate and popular format,” says Dr. Ibrahim. The media makes no distinction between the different religions of the Middle East and the different ethnicity’s within the Muslim community. Dr. Ibrahim says, “The biggest misconception is that all Muslims are Middle Eastern, when they aren’t, for example, there are some Muslims who are from Vietnam or Jordan. And there are Middle Eastern people who are not Muslim. There are Arab Christians, Palestinian Christians, it is widely misunderstood.”

“Even with the mural and Palestinian groups on campus, I don’t necessarily feel understood as a Palestinian much of the time a SFSU, partly because I feel many of my fellow students aren’t familiar with Palestine,” says Halim. “For those that have heard of Palestine, it has generally been in some sort of negative context within the media.”

Halim recently worked on a chapter in a book for Dr. Ibrahim. “We asked Arab and Muslim youth about how they feel about portrayals of Arabs and Muslims on TV news,” says Halim. “Our study concluded that skewed media representations of Arabs and Muslims had an extremely negative effect on our participants. Such as being victims of hate crimes, vandalism and racism, to dropping out of school, and being discriminated against for their ethnicity and religion at the workplace or at school.”

During their work, Halim and Dr. Ibrahim heard from the family member of a girl from a San Francisco High School who dropped out due to constant harassment from her classmates. “A local high school girl from Yemen who wore a hijab to school was taunted and mocked at her school and couldn’t take it anymore so she moved back to Yemen,” says Dr. Ibrahim.

Despite the many adversities Arab and Muslim youth are experiencing, Dr. Ibrahim believes the Middles Eastern community in San Francisco and SF State are represented and understood. Dr. Ibrahim says, “SF State and San Francisco is a little different, here people are enlightened, and progressive.” Dr. Ibrahim has seen improvement in the campus media as well, “Recently in the campus newspaper, there has been some good coverage of the Middle Eastern community.”

The conflicting walls within the Middle East are changing and being broken down every day. The takeover of Egypt by the people and the struggle within Libya is sparking an evolution in the Middle East. Now is as great time to get educated about the Middle East and the people of Arab and Muslim descents. So start with SF State. Go to the GUPS’s and MSA’s events, get to know them, have a conversation and make friends. Take some classes in the Ethnic Studies Department. Or, explore classes within the segment three programs like Mediterranean, the Middle East, Multicultural Human Relations, and Islamic Societies and Cultures. Step out of the FOX news bubble and consume news from alternative sources, like NPR, Al Jazeera and other Internet sources.

By exploring outside the confines of safe and comfortable, the layers of ignorance and fear disappear. There is strength and peace felt around these groups that is remarkably rare, and can be experienced directly. Everyday people pass unknowingly under the Palestinian student’s mural above the bookstore entrance and walk above the basement of Cesar Chavez, where Muslims practice their Jammah prayer. By branching out, anyone can discover how this community is enlightening and educating at SF State.