Russia: Panel discussion addresses misconceptions of Muslims

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SHAFAQNA – The misconception that Islam oppresses women was among the ideas that dominated a panel discussion hosted by Palouse UPstanders on Saturday at Unitarian Universalist Church of the Palouse in Moscow.

The panel addressed what some Americans incorrectly believe about Islam and the Muslim community.

“Women in Islam are actually very, very important, and so much so that Muslims believe that heaven is at the feet of the mothers,” said Yelonda Wilke of Palouse UPstanders. “Islam was the first religion actually to give women their rights.”

Wilke said deciding who their husband is, owning property independently from their husband, receiving an education, conducting their own commercial businesses and being involved in politics are just a few of the many rights Muslim women enjoy.

“I could go on and on about the rights of women in Islam,” Wilke said. “Actually this is something that’s a huge misconception.”

Wilke said there is a misconception that only Muslim women are regulated in regards to dress or dealing with men. She said Muslim men are also supposed to dress appropriately and are directly instructed to lower their gaze and not make direct eye contact with women.

Raed Alsawaier, imam for Pullman Islamic Center, said culture often contradicts religion. An imam is a person who leads prayers at a mosque.

Sometimes people see cultural signs in a Muslim-dominated country and assume that they are a part of Islam, he said.

“Islam never really differentiated between the value of the dignity of a woman and the dignity of a man,” Alsawaier said.

Wilke said the term “jihad” is used incorrectly by many Americans after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Jihad is the struggle or fight against the enemies of Islam.

“Muslims feel the same as Americans when it comes to this,” Wilke said. “That their religion was hijacked just as much as America and Americans were, because this completely turned Islam – and the idealism of what Islam is – completely turned it upside down and made people afraid.”

Panelists and audience members encouraged other audience members to get to know Muslims and any minority group before forming opinions of them.

Robert Eddy, a Washington State University professor and a Muslim, said group prejudice of minority communities by individuals in majority groups is dramatically diminished or eliminated when a person from the minority group gets to know a member of the majority group.

Alsawaier reemphasized that a lack of understanding of a group is a result of not knowing it. If people do not extend this type of communication such as the discussion Saturday, then people will not understand each other, and they will continue to have misconceptions and stereotypical images of other people, Alsawaier said.

“We tend to demonize other people that we don’t know until we start knowing them, and then we say, ‘Oh, they’re just like us,’ or ‘They’re very similar,’” Alsawaier said.

“Muslims often are just as afraid of Americans as Americans may be of Muslims, because they know that there’s a lot of misconceptions,” Wilke said.

Wilke said she encourages everyone to get involved with the local Muslim community by attending their services, greeting them to make them feel welcome and inviting them to dinner.

Charla Chaudhry, an audience member who said she is Christian but her husband is Muslim, said she grew up in Pullman but realized “how incredibly ethnocentric Americans are” when she moved to other countries.

She said Americans are geographically isolated from other religions and cultures. Chaudhry said she discovered in Egypt that Middle Easterners are also “incredibly ethnocentric.” Unless they live in an urban area where tourists frequent, they are simply not going to be exposed to people different than themselves, she said.

“They are as isolated as Americans and they have the same demons that Americans have,” Chaudhry said.

Palouse UPstanders is a group in Moscow and Pullman geared toward preventing violence and harassment and promoting understanding of different cultures and people.

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