By Tyler Howard
Whatcom Community College’s World Languages department along with the Global Citizen Association and International programs held a student panel for Muslim students to share personal perspectives and attempt to clear up any misunderstandings about Islam on April 28 in Syre Auditorium.
“Whatcom has a diverse community with different backgrounds and different stories,” said Jebin Tahera, a 21-year-old panelist from Bangladesh. “We want people to ask questions. We won’t get offended if you ask questions about [the] Taliban or ISIS; we can clarify these misconceptions with Islam.”
The Voices of Islam was an open panel to the public, drawing nearly 150 members of the audience to view and participate in an open dialogue of questions and discussions for Muslim students at Whatcom. The nine panel members represented several countries including Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Malaysia.
“It’s to give these students a voice,” said Iris Anthony, Whatcom Initiative Advisor. “They don’t normally have platforms to share their stories.”
Anthony worked alongside International Student Advisor Beth Robinson, History and Political Science Instructor Mary Haberman, English as a Second Language Academic Director Robin Preisinger, and World Languages Department Chair Angela Enderberg to organize “The Voices of Islam.”
Robinson said that events like these are how we “break down” the idea of someone being the “other” and think of them as an individual. “In a simple way, it’s peacemaking,” said Robinson. “It’s some of the best work I can be a part of.”
Haberman was the moderator for the event, asking majority of the questions to the members of the panel as well as allowing members of the audience to ask questions or give comments to the students.
“They [panelists] were grateful to speak,” said Haberman. “They want to say what Islam is and what it means to them.”
Questions and discussions consisted of topics such as what it is like to be a Muslim, their thoughts on prayer, thoughts on dress codes for men and women, Ramadan, and ISIS.
The majority of the panelists explained their thoughts on cultural integration. Early in the event, panelist Muhammad Farid, from Pakistan, said he wants to introduce Mexican food to his home country one day as a way to introduce a new culture.
Tahera and Farid are two of the five panelists who are part of a scholarship cultural exchange program called the Community College Initiative where they study in a different country for 10 months. The other panelists enrolled in the program include Islam “Mix” Ali from Egypt, Seyda Yilmaz from Turkey, and Muhammad Waqar from Pakistan. Currently, there are 19 students total at Whatcom on this scholarship.
“This experience has been awesome,” said Ali, who has been living in America since August, “and it’s changed my perspective on American culture.”
Ali is originally from Ismailia, Egypt, where he said the only information he had about American culture was through TV news sources. He said with events like these, it’s “amazing to know Americans are teaching their community about Islam.”
Beth Tyne, Whatcom’s Learning Contracts and Prior Learning Coordinator, and her husband are Ali’s “Friendship Family” during his stay in America. Tyne says that the purpose of these Friendship Families is to have someone in the community give these students an American home. “When you’re isolated it’s easy to think of the ‘other’ and not the individual,” said Tyne.
Anthony said that “it makes a difference between just where they’re just living and an actual home.”
The student panel discussed more sensitive subjects regarding their faith as well. Panelist Alva Putra from Indonesia shared his opinion about ISIS and how it fit into his religion.
“Islam is not about hate, it’s about love,” said Putra.
Putra explained that to hurt someone in anyway would be in contradiction of his faith.
“If you attack someone to hurt someone,” said Putra, “you are not a Muslim.”
Putra worked alongside with panelist Muhammad Ebrahimi from Iran to organize events for Islam Awareness Week. Anthony said these events were separate from the Voices of Islam, since that was the yearly global student panel. She said that it worked out well they were able to put the panel in the same week.
The events that Putra and Ebrahimi organized throughout the week included topics such as women in Islam, a discussion about Islamophobia, and a dervish dancing assembly performed by members of the Mevlevi Order of America, Seattle Circle.
“It’s like traveling without traveling,” said Haberman, “and it’s rewarding for the student.”
Putra said that this week alongside with the Voices of Islam was focused on bringing different experiences and cultural diversity on campus.
“We want to raise awareness,” said Putra, “Islam is about generosity and having a peace in yourself.”
Towards the end of the event, Haberman gave the floor to members of the audience for the opportunity to ask questions or give comments to the panelists. Each person that spoke thanked the panelists for their courage and for sharing their personal stories.
As the event came to a conclusion, the crowded auditorium stood on their feet and applauded the members of the panel. The panelists themselves arose and returned the applause to the audience.
“When they stood up at the end, they had pride,” said Robinson, “and they were thankful to the audience for listening.”