MSA students combat Middle Eastern and Muslim stereotypes

Infographic by Grace Richey.
Infographic by Grace Richey.

By Grace Richey, Staff–

Hosna Mohabbat has the room’s attention. As she sits with her fellow club members, Mohabbat heads the discussion of potential events and outreach opportunities at both Davis High and in the local community.

“We don’t have to be isolated to the high school, this is a bigger part of our lives,” Mohabbat, president of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), said.

In the last few years, the MSA has persistently worked to educate the Davis community about Muslim culture, including serving as a sponsor of the DHS Anti-Discrimination Week in the spring.

President of the Muslim Student Association, Hosna Mohabbat, leads the club’s Dec. 11th meeting on in discussing possible events and outreach opportunities at DHS.
President of the Muslim Student Association, Hosna Mohabbat, leads the club’s Dec. 11th meeting on in discussing possible events and outreach opportunities at DHS.

“The henna activities were my favorite,” club secretary Geed Abdul Sattar said.

However, the henna tattoo booth the MSA staffed during Anti-Discrimination Week served more than just an ornamental purpose.

“It brought people together and showed that we have common interests,” Abdul Sattar said, emphasizing the popularity of the activity.

One of the several goals of the MSA is to provide DHS students with a better understanding of the Muslim religion in hopes of erasing misconceptions about Middle Eastern cultures and combating stereotypes.

Mohabbat feels strongly about this area; she has chosen to be very open to her friends’ questions about Islam with the intention to counter the negative image the media gives Muslims and Middle Eastern people by addressing the lack of understanding that many people have.

“[My friends] get obscure ideas about my religion and get confused,” Mohabbat said.

Much of the information that the media delivers about situations in the Middle East and other Islamic regions focuses on extremists and is delivered in pieces, and according to Mohabbat, leaving it subject to misinterpretation.

To gauge DHS students’ knowledge about the Muslim world, a survey in one U.S. History and two AP U.S. History classes has been done. Only 12 out of the total 86 students were able to correctly identify Afghanistan as the country the US invaded in response to the 9/11 attacks carried out by the extremist Al-Qaeda terrorist group.

Mairaj U. Syed, an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at UC Davis instructs a course that analyzes scripture from the Qur’an and relates it to modern context.

“We live in an increasingly interconnected and globalized world. This requires that we all know something about faith and ethical traditions outside of the one we are committed to,” Syed said.

Junior Anisa Khan recalls one of the most frequently asked questions by non-Muslims at last year’s Anti-Discrimination week event was about the headscarf that many—but not all—Muslim women chose to wear.

“We talked about things that people most wanted to know about—like the hijab,” Khan said.

The same survey identified that only 48 percent of students were able to identify the Arabic word for a headscarf (hijab) out of four multiple choice answers. Mohabbat explains that it is a symbol of humility and modesty.

“It’s more than a head scarf, it’s a lifestyle,” said Mohabbat, who has chosen to wait to wear a hijab. “I want to make sure that I’m ready to take on the responsibility that comes with it.”

The implications that are associated with wearing a hijab also fall subject to stares and questions that many non-Muslim people have because of a lack of comprehension in the subject.

Sam Ravani, the president of the Persian Club also notices the lack of knowledge that many DHS students have that coincides with misunderstandings about his culture.

“Persians tend to be grouped with the rest of the Middle East, but that’s not correct. None of the countries should be grouped in general,” Ravani said.

Persia, the previous name for what is now Iran, is different from many other Middle Eastern nations. Despite the general public’s misconception, Iran is not one of the Arabic Nations, because Farsi is the main language and the culture is significantly different.

The survey concluded that only 1 in 86 students could correctly identify Iran as the only non-Arabic nation off a list, where 45 percent recognized Persia as the country with the highest concentration of Shia Muslims.

One of the most commonly missed questions pertained to the percentage of Muslims that live in the U.S., which according to the 2010 Pew Report is only 0.8 percent. Results of the survey indicated that subjects believed the percentage to be much higher.

“I feel that we have this exclusive opportunity because we live in America, and this place is the ultimate melting plot of cultures […] it really adds to us as a people because although we all come from so many different backgrounds. Somehow we are able to live in unity and it just increases the bond between is in a way because we have a better understanding of where one another come from,” Mohabbat said.

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