As schools try to prevent threats of retaliation against Muslim students or those of Middle Eastern origin in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, many are using face-to-face discussion sessions to break down stereotypes.
In one such example in East Hartford, Conn., several high school students said they changed their minds about Muslim stereotypes following a Sept. 26 question-and-answer session by members of the Islamic Center of Connecticut.
Nafeesur Rahman, one of the members of the Windsor-based center, talked to several sophomore classes at East Hartford High School. The presentation was organized by history teacher Desmond McCaffrey.
McCaffrery said he wanted the Islamic Center members to speak to students because many pupils had expressed concerns about their future because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Some students, however, also admitted they had heard fear or hatred expressed toward Islamic students.
“I feel students have been scared of the Muslims,” student Andrea Dixon said. “They live in America, though, so I don’t think they should be treated differently.”
But Dixon said she had heard some of her classmates singing songs that advocated killing Muslims.
Samuel Robles said he had heard other students taunting Muslim students and that it might make them scared to come to school.
Rosemary Coyle, president of the Connecticut Education Association, who observed the presentation, said no incidents of Muslims being mistreated by students had been reported to her.
“Tolerance is fundamental to our education,” Coyle said. “No one should be targeted because of their race or religion. We want the kids to understand it is OK to be different.”
“I hope they will understand more about Muslims,” Mujtaba Khalied, a member of Islamic Center, said before the presentations. “I hope we can explain to them the difference between terrorists and true believers of Islam.”
The president of the center, Anis Shaikh, said he hoped members would be able to clear up any misconceptions the students might have.
“Whoever did this act, no matter what religion, it was a terrible thing,” Shaikh said. “Islam doesn’t teach to kill, it preaches submission to God.”
Center member Faisal Kamli started the ceremony with an Islamic greeting meaning “Peace be on you,” which he said was the most important part of existence because it encompassed total submission to God.
“It is a great honor to be here,” Rahman said. “East Hartford is a leader in developing understanding between faiths. This is a great opportunity for us to understand each other.”
He said it was important for people to understand Muslims because many people may think Islam teaches people to be terrorists.
His presentation included explaining the six articles of faith in the Koran as well as how Islam rules every aspect of a true believer’s life.
The 60 to 70 students in attendance at the morning presentation listened to Rahman’s 45-minute description of Islam and then were allowed to ask questions.
The questions ranged from what Muslims thought about the terrorist attacks, to what foods besides pork Muslims don’t eat, and what it was like to be a Muslim teen-ager.
“We condemn the terrorist attacks,” Rahman said. “We think life is sacred. If someone commits murder, it is as if he has killed all of humanity.”
One student asked whether they were scared to walk down the street.
Rahman said after the terrorist attacks, Islamic Center members invited police to come to the mosque to talk about safety. But he said members were proud to be Muslim and did not plan to live in fear.
Student Julian Hancock asked Rahman what he thought about Osama bin Laden and any pain he had caused.
Rahman said bin Laden was not a true Muslim and, if he was guilty, he should be punished.
After the presentation, Hancock said he thought he had learned a lot.
“The Muslims are different then what people say,” Hancock said. “I didn’t really think they were bad before, but a lot of people said they were. I think they answered a lot of questions today.”
Another student, Adam Crosse, said speaking with the Muslims had changed his perspective.
“Before the World Trade Center was destroyed, I didn’t really have an opinion of Muslims,” Crosse said. “It was something I never really thought about, but after the attacks, I thought all Muslims were terrorists. Now I think I have a new understanding.”
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