Muslim Students Against Prejudice

Sunday, November 11, 2007

As a student at the University of Maryland, I was horrified when I found out that a noose had been hung on my campus ["Racial Incident Leads to Dialogue at U-Md.," Metro, Sept. 14]. Hateful, anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled on bathroom walls at Columbia University, and the discovery of swastikas and racist slurs on dormitory doors at George Washington University [Metro, Nov. 5] remind us of the uncomfortable reality that racial and religious prejudice still exist.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "Justice cannot be for one side alone, but must be for both." Echoing that noble sentiment, it is imperative that we as a society help reclaim the teachings of peace and compassion from the intolerance and injustice that are all too prevalent today.

In that spirit of cooperation, the Muslim Students Association National has launched a "Peace . . . Not Prejudice" program aimed at furthering dialogue on campuses across the country. Students will hold discussions of the true teachings of Islam and the significant contributions of Muslims to modern society. This fall, more than 100 U.S. college campuses will host a "Peace . . . Not Prejudice" program.

Early this year, more than 240 campuses took part in a Fast-A-Thon, an initiative highlighting Ramadan, by asking individuals from all walks of life to fast alongside Muslims in the name of charity. Ramadan is the month of fasting during which Muslims around the world fast from sunrise to sunset to purify their hearts and give thanks for their blessings. Thousands of fasters supported various charities, but the most important part of this exercise was to promote interfaith understanding. After all, fostering understanding should be a priority, as it is an essential component of the American ideals of pluralism for people of all faiths, races and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Another aim of the program is to dispel the stereotypes and fallacies that have come to define American Muslims in the eyes of their fellow citizens. For example, many Americans believe that all Muslims are Arabs, and vice versa. In fact, only 18 percent of the world's Muslims are of Arab descent. Yet American Muslims are often linked with international events in the Middle East that do not reflect or relate to their own reality.

Another example relates to women's rights. Many Americans feel as though Islam oppresses women. Quite the opposite is true. For instance, four out of the 57 majority-Muslim nations have elected female heads of state -- a feat that we as Americans have yet to achieve. The last decade has produced four Muslim Nobel Peace Prize winners, including Shirin Ebadi, the stalwart Muslim woman fighting for human rights in the Middle East. These facts are a testament to Muslims' constant aspiration for peace and their noteworthy contributions to society.

Muslims all around the world -- and especially on college campuses -- are engaging in collective dialogue and productive events to increase understanding of Islam and Muslims. When Muslims reclaim their religion from extremists on both ends of the spectrum -- terrorists who use Islam as a guise for their political motives and bigots who incite hatred and violence against Muslims -- only then can justice truly be served for everyone, as Eleanor Roosevelt once proclaimed.

-- Asma Mirza

College Park

The writer is a recent graduate of Georgetown University and is the second female president of the Muslim Students Association (MSA) National, the largest Muslim student group in North America.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company