Thursday, November 05, 2015

Zehra Cayiroglu Essay: "Being a Muslim from the eyes of the world within America"

I have the privilege of teaching students from all over the world in my class at the Penn State School of International Affairs. One of my students, Zehra Cayiroglu, recently wrote a thoughtful essay, Being a Muslim from the eyes of the world within America originally posted on October 11, 2015 as a CNN iReport, part of an assignment: I am a Muslim in America.

It follows below.

What it's like to be Muslim in America? I'm not exactly sure where to start answering this question, but I believe I best start by answering what it's like to be a Muslim in a country where Islam is the dominant religion, my homeland: Turkey.

I arrived to the States two years ago. I don't have interesting stories like the Muslims who were born in the United States, but being a Muslim, I do have stories of my own to let the world know about Islam.

When I was 17 years old, as a Muslim female, I made a big decision with my own will and intention to start wearing the hijab( headscarf). Although my family are practicing Muslims, they were against my choice. This was because of the political situation in Turkey. If you were a female with headscarf, you would not be able to enter a university or become a government employee while wearing your scarf. Why the political environment was as such is a different story. As a 17 year-old, this was a situation that I was not able to comprehend. At the time, I didn't know what politics meant and that year I got my acceptance to political studies. I was unable to enter the university campus with my headscarf. I was only 17 years old when I was told I was prohibited entrance the university due to my headscarf being as a symbol of political Islam. When I had not yet comprehended the meaning of politics, I was faced with the term of political Islam. The only reason that I was wearing my headscarf was to practice my beliefs. I had no intention of it being a symbol of political Islam, (I didn’t even know what was it) but I was told this in my own country. The security guards threatened me many times to end my educational life, if they had seen me wearing my head-covering on campus grounds.
I could not allow them to stop me in educating myself, so I took my headscarf off during my time on the campus. During my last year, the government made a decision to allow students to enter campuses with their choice of attire, which allowed me to wear my headscarf. But it did not end there. Government employees or university staff were still restricted wearing headscarves. My goal was to become a professor but with these restrictions I was unable to accomplish this goal. My headscarf was a symbol of my religious identity, which I did not want to let go. I began to search different routes in order to achieve this goal. The only thing that could do was to continue in the direction that I was already headed with the hopes of achieving my goal of becoming a professor. I wanted to continue my education in a different place, a place where I would not face discrimination because of who I am. Of course this place was the USA, because it was “the country of freedom.” A country where you could be whoever you wanted to be. Was this really true? Was this really the country where I would not be discriminated for who I was? Is there such a country in the world?
The following year after my graduation from college, I received a government scholarship to get a degree in higher education in the USA. In return, after completing my doctorate I would go back and serve at a university in Turkey. So, my story in the USA began two years ago. My first year I attended Rice University in Houston, Texas for English as a second language studies. Last year, I enrolled in my master's program at Penn State University in the School of International Affairs. One of the most amazing moments during my first semester as a master's student was a presentation I gave for my Cultural Globalization class. It was my first presentation at Penn State and about the law on Hijab ban in France. I started my presentation by saying, " when I started my bachelors at 17 years old, I was not allowed to enter my university campus with my hijab. I was always threatened of being expelled from the school if I had my hijab on on campus. I did allow them to end my dream/my education process and today I am at Penn State University. This is my first presentation and it is about hijabs, it just feels great!"

Being a Muslim from the eyes of the world within America

The USA was the first foreign country that I have been to. It was my first open door to the world. This was because it incorporated bits of whole world. The diverse environment I encountered here in America gave me an opportunity to meet new people from different backgrounds, listen to their stories and learn about how they perceive me, my identity as a Muslim. After the first year of my ESL courses I asked myself this question: "how does the world perceive the Islamic world?" The answer to this question is misperception. Let me tell you why:

The Media Effect

Media is a very important point in people's misconceptions due to the mere fact media has a strong influence on people's thoughts. Due to the strong effect the media has, individuals can easily label others and be biased towards those whom they do not know culturally.

Before I attended the university in Turkey, I myself had prejudiced against the people of Afghanistan or Iraq. I think at that time I was not actually aware that I was from a middle eastern background as well. But I knew that "the Middle East" did not awaken good thoughts for me. During the tragic attack of 9/11, I was twelve years old, and the only thought I had running through my head was that those attackers could not have been good people. Of course! The name Bin Laden, corresponded with the attack made me even believe that Arabs were terrorists. Even though Bin Laden was not an Afghan, I was under the impression that Afghans were people like Bin Laden. Being a young girl in her own world in small town of Anatolia, this is how I perceived events...Later understanding that this was a part of the media effect. Yes, the media was shaping mind. A few years later, once I have arrived to America I understood why people have prejudice against others identity.

Think about the first image that pops into your mind when you hear about the world "Muslim", or think about the profile of a Muslim woman. Most likely, when you hear the word ‘Muslim’, you correlate it with Middle eastern countries. Probably, an image of an Arab with a gun in his hand saying "Allahu Akbar!" comes to mind. Now, think about a Muslim woman, presumably you picture a woman who has a black scarf, a burka, who is shy and oppressed. This is actually the media shows us.

Let me tell you a story about a confession that a Russian friend of mine made. During my first year in the language courses, we would have break between classes where I would get together with the other Muslim girls, we would make jokes amongst ourselves and laugh. Yes, laughing out-loud. One day, my friend approached me and confessed this: " You know what I never thought that Muslim women could be like this. I always perceived Muslim women were withdrawn, shy, oppressed and serious. But you girls are the exact opposite, you are smiling and laughing." After emphasizing her comments, I said jokingly " yes, we have a talent of laughing as well. Muslim women can laugh, too!"

Another experience that I encountered during my English studies was with a Venezuelan sitting next to me. Since he knew I studied international relations, one day he approached me with some question about Latin America. After replying his questions, I jokingly asked him a question, I said " well, it's your turn now, I am gonna ask you some question about the region I come from; the Middle East." He replied back saying, " I have no idea about the region of terrorists." To me, this was very insulting and I was in a bit of shock, I replied, " ok, be careful then, you are sitting by a terrorist...I am from the Middle East, do I really look like a terrorist from your point of view?"

Last year, while at a small Turkish restaurant, I was waiting for my order to be ready. There were a few guys who were eating their meals. They asked me whether I was an Arab or not. I stated that I was not and told them that I was Turkish. One of the guys was insistently trying show me that he knew some Arabic words. He said " Selam" which means "hello", and “Allah-u Akbar" in a rough voice and his friend sitting next to him acted as if he was decapitating his friend. After that they looked each other and let out a big laugh.

All of my experiences showed me that the media effect was a big influence on people's perspective.

Orientalism is alive

Orientalism basically refers to the way of which the East ( the word " East" in orientalist context refers to in particular to the Middle East and Muslim dominated regions) is seen as exotic, uneducated, uncivilized and at times dangerous. Orientalism is still alive today and reproduced with various versions of it. It is reproduced on the media news, in academic studies, on social media, everywhere! People have no experience with the culture of the East, and they perceive the culture in the way of how orientalist discourse reflects it. Unfortunately, the discourse brings with it discrimination, ignorance, and prejudice against Muslims.

Some Facts

There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. More than 60% of the global Muslim population is in Asia. The country which has the largest muslim population is Indonesia. Only %20 of the global Muslim population live in the Middle East. Muslims are everywhere. In such a widespread geography that they live, inevitably some traditional/cultural practices is shown as if they are in the sake of the religion. No one can tell me that the cultural practices about women in Afghanistan, or Saudi Arabia, for example, are the part of islam. People need to differentiate what is cultural practice and what is religious practice before having judgements about such a huge group of of people.

Extremists are everywhere, too. Aren’t there extremists who are Christian, or Buddhist or Jewish? There are. But, just because there are a handful extremists, is it fair to tar 1.5 billion people with the same brush? How can I think the American imam who was giving a Hutbah on the Eid-ul-Adha is terrorist like a member of al-Qaida? I can’t.

Why did I start with my hijab story?

Because my hijab is a visual representation of my identity of Muslim. With it, people can easily understand that I am a Muslim. Which causes them to have prejudices against me and makes them more prone to discriminate.

I will not argue that I am getting stopped at airports for further security-scanning just because that I am Muslim. But, it always reminds me of the security guards on campus who were threatening me to end my educational life back in my undergrad years, when the security guards at airports ask me whether they can touch my headscarf for security reasons or not, here in the United States. I am just smiling at them.

By the way, I should note that the Turkish government lifted headscarf ban for all women (students, workers in civil service or government) aiming at bolstering democratic standards in the country in 2013. Not only female university students, but also women who work in civil service or government can wear a headscarf.

What is the best thing to do?

A Turkish saying goes, “ If you know, you will love!” To know about the others is the best way to get rid of biases, prejudices and discriminatory attitudes. This is what I was told continuously within the last two years by my non-muslim friends: “ I would have never thought Muslims could be like this.” Have a Muslim friend. Travel a muslim dominated country. Don’t believe everything that you read and see about muslims on the media. In the way of making friends, there is an amazing power to eradicate biases towards others. Walk with them, eat on the same table, laugh together, listen their stories, tell your own stories. You will see how much you have in common and how alike actually you are.

To sum it all up, discrimination/ignorance is everywhere. It is on the media, at flights when a muslim women wants a cola, at schools in a science class when a student’s name is Ahmed, it is at lecterns while a politician is giving a speech. it is all sad. I will never consent all of these. I am rebelling. But, I have chosen a different way to rebel… such as involving in academic studies and writing to have my voice heard. I believe that a pen has more power than a bomb has.

Often on social media I see this comment, " Muslims, go back to your Country!" And I say, I will go back to my own country. I will go back to teach how we can live in peace, and harmony as a world. I will go back to promote understanding and tolerance, to speak out and say, "we are all one", no matter what our skin color, race, culture and religion are. We are all one.

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