The first time I remember meeting a Muslim, I was 17 years old. I recall the puzzled facial expression I must have made when a friend of mine asked a student from Senegal if he was Muslim. Muslim? I thought to myself. All I knew about Muslims was what my seventh grade textbooks told me about the bad guys from the Crusades. I had no idea what a modern day follower of Islam was like. Is there even such a thing as a modern day follower of Islam? And why isn’t this classmate from Western Africa Arab-looking? This initial shock wore off during my two years at an international boarding school in Costa Rica. The time I spent with classmates who unknowingly served as ambassadors of their respective religions and cultures left me with a greater awareness and appreciation for other people.

This experience also set me apart from many of my peers at the University of Oklahoma. While acknowledging the great diversity on our Norman campus, I noticed that students of various ethnic and religious backgrounds did not fully comprehend how to interact with each other. Greek Life and Christian Organizations represented the majority of campus activities, while minority groups such as the African-American and Latino students formed separate associations. Because of this, I dedicated my extracurricular time at OU to causes that I felt were underrepresented and outside the norm.

One of the causes I was passionate about stemmed from the Israeli and Palestinian friends I made at my high school in Costa Rica. Through my involvement with the OU Sooners for Peace in Palestine (SPP), I met many more Muslims and began to realize our similarities. Some of the females covered their heads because of their faith and some didn’t, either way their music taste was much like mine- J.Cole & Rihanna. Some members came late to meetings because they were praying, and sometimes I showed up late because…well I was just late. This did not prevent us from discussing activities and classes we shared on campus. These experiences allowed me to see my Muslim peers as classmates, friends, and neighbors- not the Crusaders from my seventh grade text-book.

In post 9/11 America, these same Muslim classmates and their families have faced increased discrimination because politicians and groups have used fear to dehumanize and marginalize them. However, understanding Islam has motivated me to combat bigotry and the portrayal of Muslims as un-American and inhumane. That is why I decided to intern with the Oklahoma Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-OK).

Although I am not Muslim, I have dedicated my time and efforts toward defending the rights of Oklahoma’s Muslim population. Being a non-Muslim, I can help CAIR-OK show that anti-Muslim bigotry is not a Muslim issue, but rather an American issue. My first time meeting a Muslim six years ago was incredibly confusing and eye opening. Today however, I take pride in having personal connections with American Muslims. I hope my work with CAIR-OK will ensure that my friends can have the same opportunities as me, no matter what their religion.

– Peter Jones graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in International Studies and Spanish. He has studied abroad in Jerusalem and in Istanbul, Turkey. His previous internships include the Oklahoma Center for Non-Profits and the American Task Force on Palestine in Washington D.C. After the completion of his internship with CAIR-Oklahoma, Peter will be joining the United Nations Development Programme in Yerevan, Armenia.