When a question came up about how people who aren’t Muslim can help to combat Islamophobia, Aamr Hasanjee had a simple yet poignant response: “Just come hang out.”
The notion that the best way to get to a know people and to understand their beliefs is simply to be around them was a common theme at a forum Tuesday night. Hasanjee, a University of Central Oklahoma student who is studying electrical engineering and biomedical engineering, was among a group of panelists who spoke during the event, titled “Being Muslim in America.”
“Once you go make friends with a Muslim or you introduce a non-Muslim to a Muslim … you’re building bridges,” Hasanjee said.
Andrew Stodghill, an American Indian who grew up in Oklahoma City and converted to Islam about six years ago, carried the idea a step further. The purpose of building a bridge is to move from one side to the other, he said. It’s not enough to just build a bridge and not use it.
“Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, people from all sorts of communities need to be interacting with one another so as to combat these issues,” Stodghill said.
It’s important for people from different backgrounds to stand up for each other during times of crisis and moments of prejudice and to stand together as a united front against hate, prejudice, oppression and racism, he said.
The forum was hosted by The Oklahoman in partnership with Oklahoma City University.
The panelists discussed common misconceptions they hear about their faith and what they would like others to know about Islam. Three of the panelists who converted to Islam shared about what drew them to the faith and how family members reacted to their decision.
Mikael Deems Bryant, a third-year law student at the Oklahoma City University School of Law who converted to Islam several years ago, said some of his family members were terrified of him for a while.
Panelists also discussed how the tone of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and anti-Muslim rhetoric have affected their lives.
Zahara Chaudhry, a Pakistani American who works for an advertising agency in Oklahoma City, said she and her family members like to pray outside during the summer. After hearing reports about an imam and his assistant who were shot to death and a woman wearing a hijab who was set on fire in New York, Chaudhry’s mom asked her to pray inside.
Those acts of violence weigh on Chaudhry’s mind as well. Her mom likes to go on walks around the neighborhood. If her mom isn’t home by a certain time, Chaudhry starts to worry.
“I’ve had to speak to her, ‘Don’t go out at night,'” Chaudhry said. “‘Don’t go at certain times.'”
Rand Alzubi, a University of Oklahoma dental student who wears a hijab, spoke about what it’s like to be visibly Muslim. Whenever she’s out in public, Alzubi tries not to react if someone cuts her off or does something to upset her because she’s aware that people are watching what she does and that some people will judge Muslims based on her individual actions.
“I just think about if I’m the Muslim that people see, what do I want them to take from the situation?” Alzubi said.
Chaudhry encouraged people who have gotten to know Muslims to speak up if they hear Islamophobic rhetoric or they’re hanging out with people who are making negative comments. She shared a story of one time when she was studying abroad in Italy and her roommate came to her defense.
Someone made a negative comment during class. Chaudhry was so stunned that she didn’t know what to say, but her roommate, who had asked Chaudhry questions about Islam, spoke up.
“A lot of the friends that I’ve made here in Oklahoma are great about that,” Chaudhry said. “They’re great about coming and standing alongside their Muslim friends.”
Joseph Webster, a teacher, said the diversity of the United States is one of its greatest strengths.
“It’s all about getting to know one another and realizing that, yes, we have our differences, and that’s not always a bad thing. A lot of times we will find out that we’re more alike than we are different,” he said.
Webster retired from the military after 20 years of service in the U.S. Army, including three combat deployments during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He encouraged people who have curiosities about Muslims or negative opinions about Muslims to visit Arlington National Cemetery.
“Not all of those headstones have crosses,” Webster said. “Some of them have the crescent. The freedoms that we are so proud of … Muslims helped defend those freedoms.”