My Last Post

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Wow. It is difficult for me to believe that I will be a graduate of this university in just under two weeks. It is so cliche to say it, but the time has legitimately gone by in what feels like the blink of an eye. If there are any new GEFs reading this, PLEASE make sure to enjoy your time at OU as much as you possibly can. It will be over before you know it!

When I was applying to OU, seeing the new Global Engagement Fellowship program was a big pro for this university in my eyes. Since I was in middle school, I’d dreamt of studying abroad, and it was wonderful to see a university that promoted study abroad so heavily. I was overjoyed to be selected for this program, and I have been so blessed with all of the wonderful experiences that have come out of it.

I still maintain that studying abroad was the best decision I made in college. It was both incredibly fun and incredibly challenging. It taught me to use a foreign language effectively, to be confident in my ability to navigate in unfamiliar situations and places, and to see the world in a different way. Again, this all sounds so cliche, but this cliche exists for a reason. Studying in another country really does change you for the better, and if you are at all interested, I urge you to apply. OU has TONS of study abroad scholarships that make it financially feasible.

Every day, the international community gets more and more connected. No one country can exist as an island anymore, even if it wants to. Because of this, I am so grateful to this program for encouraging me to learn as much about the international community as I possibly could. Now more than ever, this knowledge is vital, and I’m leaving OU knowing that I am a much better-educated and more well-rounded person than I came as.

The moral of this sentimental story is that OU is amazing, the Global Engagement Fellowship is amazing, and studying abroad is even better. I am still having trouble coming to terms with leaving, but I take comfort in the fact that sadness at leaving means that I got to experience something truly awesome. Thank you to Bushra, thank you to Jaci, and thank you to all of my fellow GEFs for making these last four years unforgettable!

My Last Global Engagement Day

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Today I attended my very last Global Engagement Day, and it was a wonderful way to end my time as a GEF. Every year, fellows get together to lead panels on all sorts of things, from what to pack, to where to study abroad, to telling stories (a panel I participated in last year), to the talk I attended today: women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ students abroad.

As a straight, white woman, 1/3 of these descriptors apply to me, but I found it so valuable to hear the perspectives from everyone on the panel. It was fascinating, and times heartbreaking, and often empowering to hear fellow students tell the stories of how they lived and were treated in places outside the U.S. It’s no secret that our own country often doesn’t treat anyone in these three groups with kindness, but the fact remains that the United States is a fairly liberal country, while some that GEFs travel to (Morocco and Uganda were mentioned in the talks) are not.

It was interesting to hear where these students drew the line between standing up for themselves when they were being oppressed (overtly or covertly) and between staying quiet to avoid making too many waves. As one of them stated, “you’re not there to cause a culture war.” The idea of dressing much more conservatively, or of hiding homosexuality, in a country that basically requires it has always been interesting to me. On the one hand, it’s important to respect cultures you are a guest in. But on the other, shouldn’t you say something if you’re being catcalled, or you are admonished for your homosexuality or your style of dressing? Here in the U.S., we very much have a culture of speaking up (if you feel safe doing so) when you are not being respected. But the dynamic changes significantly when you study abroad.

Ultimately, I have the utmost respect for these students. To hear comments about yourself that make you bristle and to stay calm and respectful is a really admirable course of action. I think they all served as excellent cultural ambassadors for the United States, and I am proud to be a Global Engagement Fellow with them.

It was an excellent panel, and it made my last Global Engagement Day one for the books!

Exclusion or Inclusion? Disability and Community in Late Medieval France

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I recently had the opportunity to leave my comfort zone a bit and attend a history of science lecture. Typically, the lectures that I attend are focused on current international events, so it was an exciting change of pace to attend an event focused more on history.

The talk I attended was given by Dr. Sasha Pfau, an associate professor from Hendrix College. I was not sure what exactly to expect from such a lecture, but I found myself quickly fascinated with Dr. Pfau’s research. Her study’s goal was to investigate the treatment of disability in Medieval France. Whenever I think about disability in the Middle Ages, I, like many people think of people locked away from society in mental institutions or shunned in leper colonies. During this talk, I was surprised to learn that this was often not the case.

Dr. Pfau found her evidence by pouring through thousands of pardon letters. These letters were written to the king of France by either convicted criminals or their families or friends requesting pardon. The king granted these pardons as a show of power; he was above the law, and excused people’s crimes in an attempt to flaunt it. Those seeking pardon worked with court scribes and paid a fee to write the letters, and if the king granted the pardon, they could pay extra to have it transcribed in the official books. These approved, transcribed pardons are all that survive, so today, we have no way of knowing how many pardons were approved or what an unapproved pardon looked like, but the letters give modern historians insight into ordinary life at the time.

Each letter included the story of the crime with a justification. It is these stories that Dr. Pfau was interested in; though the stories may have been embellished, they reflected plausible, normal events at the time. Thus, any treatment of disability that came up in the letters was likely indicative of how disability was regularly treated in those days. Dr. Pfau said that most letters did not contain any mention of disability; she had to read hundreds of letters to find what she was looking for. However, the letters she did come up with painted a picture of disability treatment that looks very different from my assumptions. From these letters, it is apparent that those living in late Medieval France included disabled people as members of society and practiced a great deal of familial care. Rather than casting the disabled out, they were brought into the fold and included as much as possible.

Her case studies varied from a disabled man who participated with his friends in a bar fight to a blind man who was killed by his wife for intentionally sabotaging her work. In each case, the disability was never the focus of the letter, but the reader could see that it was often treated very differently to what many have previously imagined. When the disabled were mistreated, it was due to their own negative actions, rather than their disabilities. Their families felt and upheld the responsibility to care for their disabled family members, and the disabled were as integrated into society as possible.

I was impressed with Dr. Pfau’s ability to make such a strong case for something so surprising to me, as well as her method of obtaining it. Before this talk, I had never heard of pardon letters, nor had I given much thought to the treatment of disability throughout history. The lecture was a fascinating reminder that often, dominant historical narratives are not accurate; they are shaped by biased historians choosing the version of history that they want to pass down. I learned some interesting things about Medieval France and had some of my preconceived notions of history shattered. It was a nice reminder that, while studying current events is immensely important, studying historical events can be equally so.

My Last Semester as a GEF Mentor

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As this is my final semester at OU, it is my final semester as a mentor to younger Global Engagement Fellows. Serving as a mentor to some incredible fellows has been an honor for the past year and a half. So far, every new fellow that I’ve met has been incredible – they make it easy to be a mentor because they need very little help! But it has been amazing to be able to share my travel stories with people who can actually find them useful (it’s always nice to have a valid excuse to reminisce about my time studying abroad…). It is wonderful to listen to new fellows speak so passionately about study abroad plans and to hear about all of the awesome things they’ll get to do.

I’m always jealous when I hear about new programs and adventures – I’ve been back in the U.S. long enough that my time abroad occasionally feels like an incredibly pleasant dream, something that I remember but that happened to another person. I have grown up a great deal since that time – during the summer after I studied in Spain, I worked 6-7 8 hour days a week at two different jobs. The next summer, I was rewarded with an amazing 9-5 job that I will continue with after graduation. But I’m also planning a 3 week trip to Europe with my boyfriend after graduation to get another taste of life outside the U.S. and to show him around. I am so excited about the things happening in my life, but I will always miss my time living in Spain. Studying abroad is simply an experience like no other, and one that I hope every college student will try to take advantage of. It is so uniquely wonderful; you’ll never have another time like it.

For this reason, it makes me so happy that this Global Engagement Fellowship that started the year I came to OU is flourishing and attracting so many amazing members year after year. I am honored to be in the first graduating class of this fellowship. I hope I’ve done my small part in building a legacy that will live on for years at OU. GEF is an organization promoting international collaboration and cooperation, learning new languages, connecting people from different cultures, and educating yourself as much as possible on the world outside your home country. I have learned so much as a member of this organization, and I hope that I have helped to pass along some of that knowledge to my mentees. Being a global engagement fellow has been utterly wonderful. I am not yet ready for my time to be over, but I am so thrilled that other new fellows are going to get the chance to study abroad and have their own amazing experiences.

The Iran Nuclear Deal

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Hello! It is difficult for me to believe that I’m now in my last semester at OU. As cheesy as it sounds, it really does seem like just yesterday that I was starting up this blog. I’m amazed at how much has happened in under four years – I’ve traveled to eight countries since then, had several awesome internships, developed passions I didn’t know that I had, and come up with a viable plan for my future. None of this means that I know what I’m doing yet, but I’ve had an amazing time finding my way.

Tonight, I had the immense pleasure of going to a talk by Dr. Trita Parsi at the Sam Noble Museum on the Iran nuclear deal. I’ve spoken before about how much I enjoy listening to experts discuss their fields, and tonight was no different. Dr. Parsi was eloquent, engaging, and extremely knowledgable, and I learned a great deal about the intricacies of the U.S.-Iran relationship over the last several decades. Dr. Parsi advised the Obama administration on the Iran nuclear talks and was also in conversations with Iranian officials. If anyone is an expert on this topic, it is this man.

He spoke of the historical roots of the relationship between Iran and the United States, and the complicated role that Israel played in the relationship. It was fascinating to hear about how things have changed over the years: in the 80s, Iran and Israel often worked together against common threats, such as Saddam Hussein and the USSR. However, in the early 90s, the USSR collapsed and the two countries became rivals. Iran refused to recognize Israel and the two countries no longer got along. The U.S. has gained and lost power of influence in the region over the years. As with all international disputes, the situation is complex with no clear solutions.

My two main takeaways from the talk are that effective diplomacy often requires creativity and that this creativity is often impossible without friends. During his time in office, President Obama imposed the harshest sanctions to date on Iran, crippling their economy for several years, in an attempt to get them to stop their nuclear program. These sanctions were only effective because Obama had international clout and got buy-in from many U.S. allies, who stopped buying Iranian oil. When Iran found ways to get around the sanctions, the U.S. then got creative, creating a secret channel to Iran through Oman in order to expedite nuclear talks.

Through this secret channel, American diplomats offered to let Iran keep a certain low number of centrifuges enriching uranium in exchange for their participation in the deal. The U.S. could not write down this offer for fear of upsetting its U.N. allies, who were still participating in the official nuclear talks, and Iran could not take a verbal agreement from the U.S. To get around this, the U.S. got the Sultan of Oman, a close ally to Iranian officials and to us, to personally deliver the offer. The Iranians could not refuse a personal offer from such a close friend lest they appear to be publicly distrusting an ally. Thus, the Iran nuclear deal was born. It would not have been possible without creativity and friends – unilaterally, the U.S. would have gotten nowhere.

In light of this, I am concerned with the U.S. government’s current treatment of diplomacy. An “America first” policy seems to serve only to alienate our closest allies. Additionally, many of our international embassies are currently without ambassadors. We appear to be ignoring attempts at diplomacy in a time when we need them the most; this talk proved that we NEED allies if we have any hope of solving our greatest international problems. During his talk, Dr. Parsi drew alarming parallels between talks with Iran over the last decade and the situation between the U.S. and North Korea now. If we are to look to our past and avoid the same mistakes, the government would do well to keep in mind that creative diplomacy and the curation of strong international friendships will likely be they key to an effective solution.

ISIS/The Islamic State: Some Thoughts on What’s Happening Now

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The rise and spread of ISIS* has made international news for more than three years now. This brutal, militant form of Sunni extremism quickly conquered large pieces of Iraq and Syria, and regional forces, with support from a coalition of 68 countries around the world, have been fighting to take back the territory ever since. Meanwhile, ISIS claimed responsibility for horrific terror attacks committed all over Europe and bleeding into the United States.

ISIS attracted many young people into its ranks both in the Middle East and in western countries. Surprisingly to many, ISIS actually attracted many well-educated, economically well-off youth in addition to more traditionally disenfranchised people. As its numbers and territory grew and its terror attacks became more frequent, ISIS inspired a great deal of fear throughout the world. Within areas controlled by ISIS, native people suffered greatly, and in the West, people feared more terror attacks and the organization spreading further.

For years, at least to me, it’s felt as though the international community has made little progress in taking ISIS down. ISIS would lose territory and then gain it back, all while continuing to commit terror attacks. However, there has been a recent turn of good fortune – the leaders of both Iraq and Iran have declared that ISIS has been militarily defeated in both Iraq and Syria. I am honestly skeptical of this; the news is new and in fights such as this, victories are seldom so clear-cut. However, ISIS’s loss of Mosul in July signaled the beginning of significant territorial losses for them, and for once, ISIS really does appear to be losing ground.

I am incredibly pleased that ISIS is retreating and that native Iraqis and Syrians are beginning to get their countries back. However, based on all of the research I’ve done this semester, I think it’s incredibly important that western powers who’ve been assisting regional forces in Iraq and Syria militarily to attempt to solve the root causes of terrorism, rather than just the symptoms. Military victory is fantastic, but because ISIS is just as much an ideology and a rallying cry for many who feel disenfranchised, I fear that military victories will be temporary. Western responses to terrorism often treat the symptoms of terrorism but fail to tackle the larger roots: economic inequality, ineffective and ill-thought-out foreign policy, and social unrest, to name a few. Admittedly, these issues will be significantly more difficult to tackle, but I think this makes them all the more important. Yes, we need to fight back against ISIS with military strength, but I think that we also need to fight back with ideas.

Obviously, I am but an undergraduate biology major with an interest in foreign policy. I fully recognize that my statements above are an oversimplification of these complex, multifaceted international events and issues. I by no means claim to be an authority here; I would simply like to start a conversation about these issues. I think that terrorism has many root causes, and work on tackling those, rather than fighting the fires that emerge as a result, has the potential to affect real, lasting change. The difficulty, of course, lies in figuring out how exactly to go about fighting those root causes.

*There are many names for this organization, and what is most widely accepted continues to change. Throughout this post, I’ve chosen to use ISIS for simplicity and because this term is widely recognizable to the American public.

Mentoring the Next Generation of GEFs

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This semester, I have had the immense pleasure of getting to mentor another new class of Global Engagement Fellows. In meeting new fellows this semester, I was struck by the feeling that I am getting old (okay, I may be just shy of 22, but in the context of the average age of college students, that’s not young). I am a senior this year. At many points over the course of this semester, I’ve found myself thinking “this is my last September in Norman,” “this is my last homecoming as an undergrad,” and, most recently, “this is my last Halloween as an OU student.” To me, these are sobering thoughts – I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at this wonderful university for the past three and a half years, and Norman has come to be my home. I’ve built up a close community of friends, and don’t feel ready at all for that community to split up and scatter across the country. Similarly, I don’t feel ready to leave behind my peaceful afternoons on campus, reading in a lounge in Farzaneh or writing a lab report in the Great Reading Room of the Bizz. Fortunately, I still have several more months of doing all of these things, but in speaking with new fellows, I’m reminded of how much of my time at OU has already passed.

One of my favorite things to talk about with new fellows is their study abroad goals. I love hearing about all of the places that they want to go and the things that they want to do. Once again, I’m frequently saddened that my time studying abroad is over (I’ve said before and I’ll say it again – studying abroad was by far the best decision I’ve made in college), but I love getting to hear about all of the adventures that my mentees will get to go on.

It’s also awesome to get to share some of the knowledge I’ve acquired over the years with the new fellows. After navigating the harrowing waters of trying to find housing for half a year and avoiding paying for the other half, I’ve gained some key insights that I’ve gotten to share. I love knowing that I can hopefully help eliminate some of the only negative parts of studying abroad for new fellows by telling them my cautionary tales.

This program has a habit of attracting very bright and talented individuals, and, truth be told, none of my mentees need much mentoring at all. They are all incredibly capable and driven young women, and I could not be more excited to see where this program takes them. Even so, it still feels good to be a resource for them, and it’s nice to have new explorers that I can live vicariously through.

To sum up, I am absolutely loving getting to be a peer mentor in this program. The Global Engagement Fellowship, and the studying abroad that came with it, has been one of the highlights of my college career, and getting to share my passion for this program with new members is always a treat!

The Portrayal of Muslims and the Iraq War in U.S. Media

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This week, I got to go to my first round table discussion of the semester. I always enjoy these talks immensely because I appreciate hearing from experts in different fields related to international current events. Try as I might to keep up with these events on my own, the knowledge that I glean from the news cannot match what I gain from hearing from the experts themselves.

This talk was somewhat different because it related not to a specific current event but to the portrayal of Muslims and the Iraq War in U.S. media over the course of several years. Given my honors research this semester on the fear of Islam in the U.S. and the factors that perpetuate it, this talk was particularly interesting to me. In this discussion, Dr, Kristian Petersen, a professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska, discussed two movies, American Sniper and the Hurt Locker, to highlight common American portrayals of Muslims and the Iraq war. He discussed both specific events from each movie and the ways in which these movies tie in to the predominant media narratives about both Muslims and this war.

The common theme between both movies was a tendency toward a simplistic portrayal of Muslims. Muslims in these films are depicted as a homogenous group, very different from mainstream Americans, predisposed toward violence and radicalism. Dr. Petersen stated that this portrayal, found in movies, TV shows, and the news, creates an atmosphere of mistrust of Muslims and normalizes the mistreatment of members of this faith group. This position is backed up by a great deal of survey data; consistently, surveys show that Americans trust Muslims least of any religious group in the country, and in 2014, 42% of Americans supported the profiling of Muslims. Many Americans view ISIS as what a true Islamic society looks like, rather than an extremist offshoot. As further proof of this mistrust and fear of Islam, hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. quintupled following 9/11, and continue to spike following any terror attacks at home or abroad, regardless of whether or not these attacks are perpetrated by Muslims.

Both movies that Dr. Petersen focused on play directly into this fear of Islam that so many Americans already felt before the movies’ releases. They each depict Muslims as distrustful and uncivilized, and both contain dramatic and stereotypical imagery. These films contribute to the conflation between ethnicity and religion and to the view that all Muslims are extremists who hold radically different views than most Americans. In American Sniper, Arab children are depicted as inherently violent, Muslim homes are depicted as war zones, and Muslim women are dismissed with misogynistic slurs. The film fails to distinguish between Arab and Muslim extremists and between the Arab and Muslim public, contributing to existing American issues making these distinctions.The Hurt Locker employs the same tired tropes; it implies that Muslims are inherently violent and that it is impossible to tell which among them are terrorists and which are peaceful.

This is not to say that there is no violence or extremism in the Arab world today; certainly, these problems exist, and certainly, some Muslims participate in this violence. Dr. Petersen’s claim is that these two films are somewhat problematic because they contribute to the failure of the American public to distinguish between extremism and between the rest of Islam, between terrorists and peaceful citizens, and between Arabs who are Muslims and Arabs who are not. Homogenous depictions of Muslim and Arab society, like those featured in these two films, play into and build upon problems that already exist within American society. They perpetuate negative stereotypes and contribute to the rising Islamophobia within the U.S.

I thought that this talk was extremely interesting because I rarely think about the ways in which depictions of societies outside of my own can contribute to negative stereotypes. Something as innocent as a movie can have widespread societal consequences as it contributes to the collective opinion of a nation that is already afraid. I have no doubt that there is much more nuance to this situation than I have described above; my thoughts here are by no means meant to attack these movies, or to say that they are not valid viewpoints of the Iraq War. I simply seek, like Dr. Petersen does, to shed light on a depiction of a people that may be more problematic than some Americans initially realize.

A is for Arab: Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture

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Hi all,

Once again, it’s been a while since my last post! I had a wonderful summer interning as a business analyst with Capital One in Plano, and I’ve taken this first half of the semester to dive right into a very interesting, if hectic, start to senior year.

It’s a little crazy for me to think that this is the fourth year I’ve been keeping this blog! Time definitely flies by, and I’m having trouble believing that it will soon be time for me to leave the bubble that is college and make my way into the real world.

Fortunately, I still have some time left to enjoy OU, and part of what has made my time here great is attending various international events through this Global Engagement fellowship. My favorite events are often the lunchtime talks with different experts on various current events and areas of the world, but sadly, my class schedule this semester conflicts with all of these and I’ve had to get a little more creative.

The first event I attended this semester is a fantastic traveling exhibit in OU’s library called A is for Arab: Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture. This exhibit consists of a series of large displays with some photos of various negative representations of Arab people that have littered American popular culture for generations. Each large display is in the style of a children’s alphabet book, for, as the first display details, American stereotyping of Arabs can be found everywhere, including sources as seemingly-innocent as children’s books.

The exhibit strove to emphasize that even though anti-Arab and anti-Islamic sentiments have been on the rise post-9/11, these ideas are far from novel in American culture. Comics from Archie to Tarzan to Dennis the Menace have included negative Arab stereotypes, and American movies and novels have utilized such stereotypes for generations. Several of the displays detailed specific pervasive stereotypes that American culture has had a difficult time shaking.

One panel, entitled H is for Harem, outlines the ways in which the American portrayal of Arabic women is often seriously flawed and marginalizing. Arab women are rarely portrayed in American media, and when they are, they are often either hyper-sexualized or depicted as flat victims of violent oppression. There is very little accuracy in the way American media views Arab women, and this is incredibly damaging because many Americans draw their views on foreign cultures and people directly from the media. By allowing these negative (and false) stereotypes to be perpetuated, American culture perpetuates misinformation and ignorance that are extremely harmful to both race relations within the United States and the relationship that our country has with others.

In a similarly harmful vein, another of the panels in this exhibit is entitled V is for Villain, and it outlines the ways in which Arab men are so often portrayed as violent, dangerous villains, rather than as actual people. Much of American media paints Arab men with the same broad brush that in paints the women, but the men are made out to be evil, greedy, and dangerous. This is concerning for the same reason that all negative stereotypes are concerning; it breeds ignorance and mistrust, and it counteracts any hope the United States has of pursuing truly productive international relationships with Arab countries. Within our own borders, the ignorance fueled by these stereotypes makes it difficult for Arab people to assimilate into our culture, and it reinforces the idea that American prejudice against and fear of Arab people is okay.

Hopefully by now I have made it clear that I think this prejudice and fear is far from acceptable. The United States needs to work much more on eliminating stereotypes and instead viewing Arab culture and Arab people with the complexity that they possess. Broad brushstrokes are damaging and unproductive. We as a society have painted Arabs as the “other” for years, and it is time to turn the page.

It is reassuring to see exhibits such as this one focusing on educating people to this issue. Shamefully, before viewing this exhibit, I had not realized just how pervasive the negative stereotypes of Arab people were in U.S. culture, though I’m sure that any Arab-American is painfully aware. Hopefully, this exhibit can combine with an increasing number of positive, realistic portrayals of Arabs in American media to produce a positive change in American society. I know that we can rise above this hatred and fear that we have allowed to brew for so long; what we need now is to start taking our first steps.

The themes of this exhibit have significant overlaps with my honors research this semester, in which I am looking into the roots and rise of Islamophobia in the U.S. It is important to note that not all Arabs are Muslim and that not all Muslims are Arabs; these groups are far from homogenous, but we very often fail to treat them accordingly. This semester, I have been doing a lot of reading and writing over the origins of Islamophobia and their modern manifestations, and I look forward to sharing much of this in another blog post!

The Roots and Rise of Islamophobia in the West

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This semester, I have had the immense pleasure of doing honors research on the roots and rise of Islamophobia in the West under Dr. Charles Kimball. The semester is far from over, and I learn new things every day, but my research has many parallels to current events both in the United States and abroad, and I want to make a quick post sharing some of the things I’ve learned so far. This is a quick summary of my thoughts on what I’ve read so far.

Islam is the world’s second-largest religion and the fastest growing religion in the world. It was founded in 622 by a man named Muhammad, who Muslims believe is the messenger of God. The Quran, the central Islamic religious text, is believed to be God’s final revelation, a purification of the Torah and the Bible that came before it.

Islam shares many doctrinal similarities with Judaism and Christianity, and it even looks up to many of the same holy figures (the Quran mentions Jesus and Moses many more times than it mentions Muhammad). Yet, despite these similarities, many, many Americans and Europeans who are not Muslim view Islam to be a religion of violence and oppression, something far removed from so-called “Western values.” Post-9/11, both anti-terrorism efforts and anti-Islamic sentiments have been on the rise in the United States, but these prejudiced views of Islam are far from new. Rather, they date back to the earliest interactions between Islam and Christianity, and Western society has largely been unable to shake these biases that it formed so long ago.

When Islam first arrived on the scene, it definitely shook the status quo for the Christians at the time. Islam gained followers, power, and knowledge incredibly quickly, making the Western countries appear backwards by comparison. Thus, the first impressions that the West formed of Islam were formed in fear; Islam was the greatest threat to Christianity that Christians had ever seen, and in their fear, their initial assessment of Islam was incredibly inaccurate. They painted Muslims as godless villains and relied much more on their own imaginations than on research into what Islam is really like to form their first impressions. (Source: Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages, R.W. Southern)

Over the years, when Islam ceased to be as much of a military threat, Western scholars began to conduct more accurate research on Islam, but an anti-Islamic sentiment still persisted throughout much of the Western world. Negative caricatures of the prophet Muhammad and damaging misunderstandings of Islamic law and practices were pervasive. Even as Western society as a whole gained more understanding of the actual text of the Quran and of the actual religious practices observed by many Muslims, the prejudice generated in the Middle Ages remained ingrained in their societies. Events like the Crusades underscored the fact that Islam was treated as the enemy, and though some in the Western world, most notably St. Francis, sought peace and interfaith dialogues between Christians and Muslims, this attitude was the exception, not the rule. (Sources: Islam and the West: The Making of an Image, Norman Daniel, and The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace, Paul Moses).

European colonialism threw yet another wrinkle into Islamic-Western relations. European powers dominated many majority-Muslim countries for many years, and when they left, propped up oppressive authoritarian regimes, choosing their own economic interests over the implementation of the democracy that they claimed to value. These actions led to many political tensions in Africa and the Middle East that have yet to evaporate, as well as, understandably, mistrust of Western powers in the eyes of many Muslims. Western countries left terrible governments in their wake and claimed to support democracy but failed to do this in practice. As a result, many Muslims looked to Islam as a framework that could guide their political lives in addition to their private religious ones. Many majority Muslim countries have sought to implement Islam in some way into their governments, and this is an uncomfortable idea to many European countries, and to America, who pride themselves on the separation of church and state. (Sources: Islam: The Straight Path, John Esposito, and The Future of Islam, John Esposito).

Some in Muslim countries have felt so oppressed by the West that they’ve lashed out in terror attacks. Many non-Muslims in the West are quick to equate these attacks with all Muslims, when in reality, many of these attacks are politically-motivated, using Islam to justify violence but born from fear of Western political and military intervention rather than from fear of Christianity. (Sources: Islam: The Straight Path, John Esposito, and The Future of Islam, John Esposito).

What all of this boils down to is that there is a great deal of fear and mistrust on both sides of this divide, and these emotions and sentiments are far from novel. The challenge now comes in cutting through the fear and focusing more on our similarities and less on our differences. I know that sounds incredibly idealistic, but it is an ideal that I would like to strive for in my life moving forward.

At this point in my semester, I’m turning my attention to the specific case studies of the United States and Great Britain, looking at the historical roots of Islamophobia in each country and the modern manifestations of it. So far, it seems to me that much of the problem arises with an inability for many non-Muslims to imagine Muslim society complexly. Many have difficulty distinguishing between Muslims and Arabs, and equate all Muslims with the violence and extremism demonstrated by only a few. With my research, I hope to shed even a little bit of light onto this complex issue, as well as to champion the idea that we can and should see Muslims as the diverse, multifaceted group that they are. The enemy of ignorance is knowledge, and I hope to share a bit of that with my community with this semester’s research.