Navigating Islamophobia Awareness Month 2023: A Student's Guide
Universities are filled with diverse students from all around the world coming together to achieve their dreams. While learning about everyone’s culture is exciting, it is also important for students to be aware of the issues that people regularly face, problems that might not even cross one’s mind. One such prominent issue is Islamophobia.
Well, you might be thinking, “I am definitely not Islamophobic, I have Muslim friends”. But it is crucial for everyone to understand that there are strong underlying biases that people tend to have towards marginalised groups, and they might not even realise it.
This blog is here to act as a guide for you to learn more about islamophobia, how it can manifest in communities, dismantle the stereotypes, and how you can stand up against it.
Importance of Islamophobia Awareness Month
Islamophobia Awareness Month is a campaign founded by several Muslim organisations in 2012 to combat the rise of islamophobia and highlights the contributions of Muslims from all over the world. It is celebrated in November, and it intends to break the barrier between Muslim and non-Muslim communities to combat the hate. This year, the campaign intends to use the power of storytelling to spark meaningful and engaging conversations.
What is Islamophobia?
Islamophobia can be defined as prejudice, hatred, or hostility that is targeted toward Muslims and their faith which is Islam. It includes but is not limited to harmful and negative stereotypes and biases toward Muslims that might result from misconceptions or cultural misunderstandings.
Impact of Islamophobia
Islamophobia can have long and detrimental effects on the minds and lives of people who experience it. There have been several studies that researched the impact of facing racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination on individuals. The results indicate poor mental health and a rise in psychological distress (depressive symptoms and anxiety) in more than half of the participants.
In students, this can lead to low self-esteem and feelings of isolation due to the discrimination they face. This can also contribute to reduced engagement in classes and decreased academic performance due to the lack of ability to concentrate and perform well. This is why it is important to tackle islamophobia and discrimination at every level including educational institutions.
Breaking common misconceptions about Islam
There are several stereotypes and misconceptions that are very common and oftentimes are major contributing factors to Islamophobia. Understanding and learning about where these stereotypes stem from and discovering whether or not they are true helps break down prejudice towards Muslims and Islam as a whole.
All Muslims are Arabs
While Arabs can be Muslims, not everyone who is Muslim is an Arab. They might not have any connection to Arabs at all. Muslims can be from any part of the world, just like any other religion. It is vital to not automatically assume that someone who is Arab is also Muslim or assume that Muslims have to look a “certain way” as these are harmful stereotypes that have been perpetuated by popular media.
Muslims are terrorists/ extremists
This is a common misconception that is extremely harmful. Islam like many other religions promotes peace and condemns violence of any sort. Acts of terrorism that are performed by extremist groups do not represent the religion and the beliefs of the Muslim community as a whole.
Muslim women are oppressed
This assumption typically comes due to the fact that Muslim women wear a hijab (head covering worn by Muslim women). In reality, Islam gives women a high status in the religion. Many Muslim women willingly choose to wear the hijab as a proud expression of their faith and identity. They believe it gives them the power to rid themselves of societal standards of beauty and express themselves beyond what is seen on the outside.
Common Experiences of Islamophobia that go unnoticed
In accordance with this year’s goal to spread awareness through storytelling, I will be discussing instances where I or my fellow Muslim friends have felt discriminated against due to our beliefs and what you can learn from them.
A common occurrence for me as a Muslim woman who wears the hijab has been people automatically assuming that I have no interests or hobbies. I have been excluded from conversations and discussions because they assume that I am quiet and do not have any opinions to add. It always takes people by surprise when they learn that just like everyone else, I have my own passions and hobbies and strong opinions on things that matter to me.
Moreover, several of my Muslim friends have been called harsh and discriminatory terms while they were walking down the street or at a bus station. To them, it has always seemed like it is safer for them to ignore it than to fight them. But this shouldn’t be the norm. It is crucial for people to educate themselves on different religions and challenge their internalised beliefs about marginalised groups in order to stop perpetuating hateful words and actions toward them.
On the topic of learning more about religion, we have gathered some important information that can be beneficial while trying to understand this religion better and taking part in Islamophobia Awareness Month.
Muslims Pray 5 times a day
Muslims have 5 prayers that are spread across the day starting before sunrise and ending after sunset. The timings of these prayers do not stay the same throughout the year. The timing varies depending on the length of the day and the position of the sun.
So, if you have Muslim students or employees, it would be helpful to make accommodations in time and space so that they can complete their daily prayers. And if the timing keeps changing, they are not lying to you, it does change consistently!
Muslims Fast during the month of Ramadan
Ramadan is considered to be the most blessed month for Muslims. It occurs once a year and it is the 9th month in the Islamic Lunar Calendar. During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food and drinks from dawn until sunset for 30 days (or 29 depending on the lunar calendar). This is a month of self-reflection, engaging in charity, and fostering a sense of community and unity. Ramadan transcends beyond simply abstaining from food and water gives Muslims a deeper understanding of the blessings that they have and helps them practice self-control and patience.
There are circumstances where Muslims are exempt from fasting during Ramadan and this is typically for pregnant and breastfeeding women, people who are ill, and more. So, if you notice that someone is not fasting, it might not necessarily be respectful to ask why as they might not be comfortable sharing it.
Muslims celebrate Eid twice a year
Eid is a major occasion that is celebrated by Muslims. Eid occurs twice in the Islamic Lunar Calendar. The first one is Eid-al-Fitr (The feast of breaking the fast). This is the occasion that marks the end of Ramadan. The second one is Eid-al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) which coincides with the final rites of the annual Hajj (annual pilgrimage to Makkah).
During Eid, Muslims typically start the day with the Eid prayer and gather with friends and family to celebrate through elaborate feasts, exchanging Eidi (gifts or cash), and charity. It is one of the major celebrations that Muslims have, and it is considered to be an anticipated occasion for every Muslim.
How students take part in Islamophobia Awareness Month
Islamophobia Awareness Month is not only for Muslim students. Students from any background can come together to raise awareness and help Muslim students. Below are some ways through which you can engage students to combat islamophobia at your university.
Informational workshops can be helpful resources to educate students from different backgrounds to learn more about Islam and Islamophobia. It can be valuable to request Muslim students to share their experiences where they faced any sort of discrimination due to their religion that might have been overlooked by others. Gaining insight into the experiences of Muslim students can help develop empathy and compassion for the students and they can learn how to develop a respectful and inclusive environment.
Establish reporting mechanisms
Universities should establish safe and open reporting systems where any student will be able to come forward and report an incident of discrimination or hate. This followed by appropriate action toward combating the hate can help make the university an inclusive and welcoming environment for people from all different backgrounds.
Don’t let harmful jokes slide
If you hear someone making an Islamophobic comment or perpetuating stereotypes, ask them why they think that way and take the extra effort to correct them. Questioning every discriminatory remark regardless of how insignificant it might seem will contribute towards tackling the hate.
Reducing hate on a larger scale requires everyone to make a conscious choice to not let any discriminatory remarks slide in the name of “jokes”. Since these are the “jokes” that manifest into prejudice and eventually to hate.
There might be instances where your Muslim friend might not be able to come to events due to Ramadan or have to take time out to complete their daily prayers. While it might not seem like a big deal, it can be of great help to simply provide your kindness and understanding to them. Small gestures like this can help Muslim students at university feel more welcomed and understood.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Regardless of how silly something might seem to you, if you have any questions about their beliefs or practices, simply ask away. While you should always be respectful, they will be more than happy to answer your questions as opposed to assuming something that might be incorrect.
One of the most important aspects of deconstructing hatred and prejudice on a large level is to take the initiative at an individual level to educate yourself. There are amazing resources online that can help you learn more about the religion.
Click here to read a detailed article on Islam and the most commonly asked questions explained in detail. And if you would like to learn more about the religion, here is a website that explains complex concepts for beginners.
Remember, Islamophobia Awareness Month is not just about a single month of awareness. It is about igniting a lifelong commitment to combat discrimination and hatred and foster understanding so that every person can feel safe and valued.
Let’s stand up against Islamophobia, not just this month, but every day. Together, we can build a campus and a community where everyone is valued, all cultures are honoured, and all hearts are open.