“I want to start by asking you a question,” said Mohammed Rashwan to the overflow crowd of students, faculty and members of the local community late Wednesday afternoon in the Dodge Ballroom.
“I want you all to imagine that you are sitting at a bus stop and I came along and was wearing this,” Rashwan stated while placing a brimless, white, meshed cloth cap known as a Kufi (a religious cap worn by many religions but its origins are rooted in Islam) on top of his head.
“What would be your first thought? Am I person who hates you or even wants to kill you if there is a chance?”
The room fell silent.
As the audience sat with their thoughts, Rashwan played a video which only emphasized the overall theme of the gathering. Islam: Illusion vs. Reality.
The video dramatized some of the anti-Muslim sentiments in the current political climate, including sound bites from Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.
The room remained silent.
“No one doubts that there is a rise in Islamophobia but it didn’t start because of Donald Trump. For the past 20 years hundreds of movies have portrayed Muslims as terrorists, aggressive and violent people. Add to that al-Qaida, the 9/11 attacks, and now ISIS. Unfortunately many people view Muslims in that way and that is why it is so important to tell everyone that Muslims are not ISIS,” said Rashwan. “I and most Muslims around the world are taught that our religion demanded respect and caring for others.”
“The Prophet Muhammad said, ‘None of you have faith until your love for your neighbor, sister, brother total your love for yourself.’ That is what it means to be a Muslim.”
On the heels of the bombings in Brussels Tuesday morning and Turkey last week, the Dodge Ballroom Wednesday afternoon witnessed a sea of Springfield community members gather to talk Islam and its representation throughout the United States.
Led by Rashwan, a fourth year Emergency Medical Services Management student from Saudi Arabia, and Director of Spiritual Life, David McMahon, the event offered a panel of six scholars willing to share, talk and field questions about Islam.
The program, McMahon put it, was “to put recognizable faces to Islam.”
“Currently in the media, presidential debates and a lot of conversations the only view of Islam that many Americans and many of our students are getting is distorted,” McMahon said in an interview earlier this week.
“[Springfield College] is about educating leaders in service to humanity and humanity comes in a variety of types. A portion of that humanity around the world is Muslim. As students go out to an increasingly complex and diverse world, they should go out well informed and not burdened with stereotypes.”
Stereotypes form due to a lack of conversation and a lack of just simply asking questions.
“This is a really tough topic. Most people do not feel comfortable talking about it,” said Rashwan, the person who initiated Wednesday’s discussion. “My own friends are nervous to ask me questions because they might be afraid that it will offend me or my faith.”
Although Rashwan can only speak to his life experiences, he, McMahon and many others on campus and throughout the Springfield College community can continue to ask questions and have important conversations.
“By doing [the panel] we gave people the chance to ask questions. If you are not able to ask questions on a college campus about controversial topics then where are you going to do it?” said Rashwan “I think a college campus is the safest place for students and people to ask questions like this.”
McMahon seconded that saying that ‘college campuses are a place for free flowing ideas.’
“You hear a lot of rhetoric and topics mentioned in politics and media right now but you are not hearing in-depth conversations at a time when there is a lot of conflict some of which is rooted in a misrepresentation of Islam,” continued McMahon.
The panel was put in place to provide a comprehensive talk about the misrepresentation as well as to encourage the Springfield College community to continue conversations long after Wednesday afternoon.
In his introductory comments McMahon said, “the threat [to humanity] is hopelessness.
“The greatest threat we face not simply as Americans but as a global human family is hopelessness. A lack of hope is the fuel to the fire of radicalization,” McMahon continued.
Following McMahon’s introduction and Rashwan’s passionate framing of the event, the panel discussion unfurled in the same tone. Panelists included Rev. Corey Sanderson, the President of the Interfaith Council of Franklin County; Imam Dr. Wissam Abdul-Baki of the Islamic Society of Western Mass.; Dr. Martin Pion, the President of the Interfaith Council of Western Mass.; Dr. John Robbins, the Executive Director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations; Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, an attorney and activist from Springfield and Tara Parrish the Director of the Pioneer Valley Project.
Sanderson emphasized that Islamophobia’s rise has come through what he called the ‘Islamophobia machine’ blaming, in part, the shift from traditional media (TV, newspaper, radio, etc.) to social media.
Abdul-Baki, with a huge grin, continued to thank Springfield College for hosting such an event and said it was “an example for all colleges.”
Pion, who works with many religious groups, noted that the Islamic Society of Western Mass. demonstrated the most hospitality of any group.
“One of the signs for me, as to the true value of people, is the sign of hospitality. When you experience hospitality then those people at the core are truly good. I would place the Islamic Society of Western Mass. as the very best at hospitality.”
Robbins defied some people’s visual stereotype of Muslims because he is a white male. He stated that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful people, asserting that “you are mush more likely to be killed by your refrigerator falling on you than someone acting in the name of Islam.”
Amatul-Wadud, wearing a hijab, shared some interesting personal history about Springfield College. Two of her younger brothers graduated from Springfield College as physician assistants while she spent most of her time studying for her bar exam in Babson Library (in the midst of her attending Western New England University).
She said, “The key to peace in this country and in this world is interfaith unity.”
Parrish, who works with Rashwan through the Pioneer Valley Project, spoke about personal relationships and stressed the importance of a “shared pain” between every human.
At the end of the panel discussion and the question and answer period a number of attendees shared a meal at Cheney Hall. Many had emphasized the need to further important conversations outside the panel room. Clearly that was exactly what was happening.