One night, as industrial engineering student Yazeed Alghanmi left the SUB, he was confronted by an old man. The old man had heard Alghanmi talking to his family over Skype and wanted to know what language he was speaking, where he was from and if he was Muslim. Alghanmi responded, in English, that he had been speaking Arabic, and was indeed a Muslim from Saudi Arabia. Then the old man got to the point: “Why are you trying to kill us?” he asked.
“I thought it was my duty as a Muslim to explain to him the reality,” Alghanmi said, “that no Muslim is trying to kill him, or anyone.” He explained that terrorist groups like ISIS are the ones committing atrocities that affect Muslims as much as the West. “And ISIS isn’t actually Muslim,” Alghanmi said. “They are extreme. If [the old man] or anyone else read the Quran, they would know that [ISIS] are not Muslims.”
Sobia Anjum, a Fulbright Scholar from Pakistan pursuing her Ph.D. in environmental engineering at MSU, expressed similar disgust for terrorist groups perpetrating violence in the name of her faith. She cited the recent Easter Taliban bombing in her home city of Lahore. On CNN’s website, the headline for the attack reads, “In Pakistan, Taliban’s Easter bombing targets, kills scores of Christians.” Anjum revealed that most of the victims were Muslim. The Arab news source Al Jazeera concurred. “They kill us every day. My own city, my own people,” Anjum said. “I hate ISIS more than any American [does] because I know what they are doing to my religion, to my people.”
Anjum is the antithesis of the meek, submissive, oppressed caricature of Muslim women held by many in the West. Confident, independent and articulate, she wears her hijab (head covering) with lucid aplomb. “At the time when I made the decision [to wear a hijab] it was very spiritual,” Anjum said. She acknowledges that some women who wear a hijab do not have a choice, but she rejects the sentiment that all hijab-wearing women are oppressed. “It is offensive,” Anjum said. “Don’t stereotype us all.” For her, wearing a hijab is both natural and comfortable. “I’m comfortable with being known as a Muslim. I know I am in a good place with what I believe in, being okay with who I am as a person, saying that I have a devotion to my God. It gives me a sense of empowerment.”
After the Paris attacks last year, American protesters armed with assault rifles gathered outside a mosque in Irving, Texas. The leader, David Wright III went on to publish the names and addresses of local Muslim Americans in an act of blatant terrorism. Lately Islamophobia has been surfacing in slightly more innocuous ways, like the graffiti at the University of Michigan, UC Riverside and the University of Massachusetts featuring the hashtag #StopIslam, and in the form of hateful rhetoric.
Anjum thinks of Islamophobia as a product of xenophobia. “You don’t interact with [Muslims], you don’t know them, and it’s very easy to assume if you don’t know them. Any time a person says something very hateful about Muslims, you could ask them a single question: ‘Have you ever met a Muslim?’ and they would say, ‘No.” When they are spreading hate speech, they are dehumanizing us. We are people, we are humans.”
She called out the divisive rhetoric of political candidates like Donald Trump, noting his high presence in the media. “Whenever Donald Trump wants an interview he can just get it,” she said, “because he sells big.”MSU is not a very diverse school, with only five percent international students according to the MSU Office of Planning and Analysis, yet Anjum feels that she can wear her hijab with impunity. “Here in Bozeman, my experience has been awesome,” Anjum said. “It feels like home to me now. In six months to say it feels like home is a big thing.” Anjum mentioned MSU’s Office of International Programs specifically. “They are amazing. You go there and they love you like they are your family.”
Alghanmi, who also serves as the vice president of the Muslim Students Association, had similar praise for MSU and Bozeman, and identified MSU as a bastion of tolerance. He does not perceive any blatant Islamophobia. What bothers him most are instances when people poorly try to hide their discomfort or prejudice, rather than confronting him. When he recalls his encounter with the blunt old man, he doesn’t frown, he smiles. “He was genuine,” Alghanmi said. They ended up talking for around 45 minutes that night, “And then we were like friends,” he remembers. “If he had held it in, we would have never become friends. Don’t ever be afraid to ask any kind of question, as long as you ask it peacefully.”