If you’ve never talked to a Muslim, I write this for you. Maybe you’d like to know more about what Muslims are like, but you’ve just never had the chance to talk to one.
Maybe you are a little afraid of Muslims.
Maybe you’re a lot afraid.
Wherever you are in your familiarity with Islam, I write this for you.
Not many Americans have had the opportunity to know and interact with as many Muslims as I have. And so, I consider it both my duty and my gift to share what I know and what I have seen.
I first started teaching university international students in 2006, which was one year after King Abdullah II of Saudi Arabia allocated a boatload of money for Saudi citizens–both men and women–to study abroad. Indeed, for the past ten years, I have taught hundreds of Saudi citizens, not to mention students from Kuwait, UAE, and Libya. Nearly all of my students from these countries were Muslim, though it’s important to mention that not all of them were.
Before I started teaching Muslim students, my knowledge of the Middle East and Islam was relegated to what I had read in the news of my post-9/11 world. I was a sophomore in college when September 11th happened and it awoke in me a new desire to understand the Middle East and Islam.
Why do they hate us? I remember thinking. Why do they want to hurt us?
Most of what I pieced together included a bunch of disjointed ideas about the Middle East, gathered from the news.
- Many of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi Arabian.
- The United States wanted to have a presence in the Middle East to get oil.
- Women in the Middle East were oppressed, couldn’t drive, and were forced to wear veils.
- Jihad meant “holy war” and it was required of all Muslims.
- Criminals could be beheaded.
This fragmented understanding of Islam and the Middle East is what I took into my classroom at the beginning of my career.
Just as all Christians cannot be described in generalized terms, neither can Muslims. They have their Five Pillars of Islam. But referring to their Pillars of Islam didn’t show me their humanity in the same way that teaching them did.
Allow me to share some stories with you.
My first Saudi woman was named Zeanab. She was all smiles. Smiling. All the time. That is how I remember her. She was married to another student, Ali. They were newlyweds. Zeanab believed in destiny and God’s presence in her life. She told me that she had a dream of her husband before they met.
Zeanab was sharp and studious. She always, always, always did her homework. She talked in class. Frequently. She enjoyed working with other students. I loved having her in class.
I remember that another teacher had asked Zeanab if she had helped her husband with his essay. The teacher felt that Ali’s essay did not resemble his usual work and suspected that Zeanab had, probably unknowingly, committed academic dishonesty.
I remember that Zeanab came to me, in tears, at the beginning of one of my classes. She told me,
“I swear to you now that I am not helping Ali with his homework. But if you believe that I am, I will take the zero.”
I remember that.
Abdullah was like a lot of my young, 20-year-old Saudi men: single, humorous, and a bit clueless about general life skills, not to mention study skills. He lived with some cousins and friends, other young men just like him. They congregated outside of the building and smoked together during breaks. He was constantly coming to class late and not doing his homework. He fell further and further behind. His test grades were poor. He started acting out in class, and it was driving me nuts.
I scheduled a midterm conference with him, totally expecting him to be either defensive of his actions or combative. I was ready for chauvinism. I was ready to level this guy.
But when he walked through my door and sat down, I changed my mind. Instead of bringing the pain, I asked him what was going on in his life.
He stared at his shoes. He was silent.
“What’s going on, Abdullah?” I softened my voice. “Why aren’t you getting to class on time?”
“Is something wrong?”
He looked away, but quietly said,
“This is the first time I live without my mother.”
With his profile facing me, I could see the tears. He pinched his eyes.
In that moment, I was ashamed at myself for assuming that he was just another tough guy who couldn’t stand having an American woman teaching him. Here was a boy trying to be a man, uprooted from his culture, and handed an armload of responsibilities that he never had before. It was like watching a novice swimmer trying to dog-paddle across a lake–with anchors attached to his feet.
Asma joined my class in 2008-2009. She and her husband came from Libya, just several years before the 2011 revolution and toppling of Gaddafi’s regime. They had a little boy, I think around 2-3 years old at the time. While she worked to finish her English language studies so she could start a Ph.D. in pharmacology, her husband stayed with their son at home.
And then she got pregnant.
We talked with her about how the pregnancy would impact her studies. She was determined to finish, but her due date was about one month before she would complete her English study.
It didn’t stop her.
In my morning writing and grammar classes, she was like a tiger feasting on a fresh pile of meat. She would devour everything that I said. While other students struggled to stay awake, she would take mountains of notes. She asked questions. She wrote my answers to her questions in her notebook. She reviewed her tests and asked about her mistakes. Then, she tried to learn from those mistakes.
But she was also putting her body under intense stress.
She went into labor early. I can’t remember how early she gave birth, but her daughter was born just under six pounds. Tiny. But perfectly healthy.
She missed Thursday and Friday classes.
She was back in class on Monday.
She finished our program on time and started her Ph.D. program.
There are few students in the past ten years that I can remember being as driven as Asma. But what made her truly unique was that she always, always, always asked how everyone else was before she talked about herself. She would periodically bring in Libyan snacks and sweets to share with the whole class, including a carafe of Arabic coffee.
She did not complain. She would privately talk to me about the stress that she was experiencing, but she never outsourced her frustration to external factors.
She always saw herself as the one who had control over her life.
Hathim was in my Fall 2011 class. He was a brilliant student. He was one of the few students in my career who asked me to explain the past perfect tense to him–and then immediately got it. And immediately used it correctly in his writing. Hathim was preparing to enter the Master’s program in electrical engineering.
One day, Hathim was talking excitedly to another student in Arabic before we got started.
“What’s going on?” I asked him.
“You know what King Abdullah just did?”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“He’s going to allow women to vote in local elections soon.”
His eyes shone.
My father passed away on a Thursday night in June 2014. I found out the following Friday morning. We drove to Minnesota over Father’s Day weekend to attend the funeral. I was gone from class for a whole week.
When I checked my email after returning home, I saw email after email from students, most of them from my Muslim students. All expressing their condolences.
Then Fahad came to my office.
“Teacher, we just wanted you to know that we are so sorry about your father. Be patient, Teacher. God is with you.”
Here is what I want to say about Muslims:
When I was in my early 20s, I used to think that Islam somehow convinced its followers to hate Americans and Christianity.
But after just a few interactions with my Muslim students, I knew that could not be the whole story.
I could not simplify terrorism’s origins to strictly religion. My students followed a different religion, but I could still see myself in them. I could see their humanity. Their vulnerability. Their generosity. Their love. If they followed a religion that necessarily espoused hatred, how could their hearts be so tender to someone like me?
It just didn’t make sense.
The jihadist terrorists that we so often hear about in the news are sacrificing themselves for a distorted, extreme version of Islam–but the people who are nurturing and training those terrorists are doing so for much more complex political and economic reasons. Islam doesn’t teach Muslims to be terrorists and jihad doesn’t call all Muslims to strap on suicide vests.
Islam is being used as a tool of terrorism, but the roots of terrorism are economic and political.
But blaming the whole religion of Islam is much easier to explain.
It’s more convenient.
Even though it’s completely misinformed. Even though it’s devoid of context. Even though it’s devoid of humanity.
So when I hear that the idea of establishing a registry of Muslims in America is being floated as an idea that the Trump administration is considering, I smell opportunism ready to reap the harvest of fear.
I can see plenty of Americans–many who have never personally interacted with someone who is Muslim–nodding their heads along with the idea.
Jihadists terrorists need to be stopped! Look what they did to Paris and Brussels! We’re next! Find out who’s here and vet them! Give them tests! Find out who supports Shari’a law! We’ve got to know what they believe and what their values are! They’re anti-American! They’re the next Trojan horse!
To those Americans, I offer you not only my stories of teaching my Muslim students, but also my stories of learning from them what the heart of Islam is.
It’s their intense love and devotion to their family. They cannot understand how Americans could support the idea of nursing homes.
It’s their generosity and hospitality. I cannot tell you how many plates of dates I have been offered and how many cups of Arabic coffee have been poured for me.
It’s their devotion to their faith. To witness all of your Muslim students, faithfully fasting every day in the month of Ramadan. To hear them fall collectively to their knees during Jummah, their Friday prayer. To see them stop in the middle of the day to pray.
These are values and behaviors that I have witnessed over and over again across a range of students from many countries over ten years. To be sure, there is a great range across all of those I have known. Some are more conservative and some are more progressive. Some are a little more hesitant about participating in American culture and others throw themselves headfirst into the American life. Some were amazing students whom I enjoyed teaching every day and others were a pain in the neck and teaching them was a struggle.
But even across the wide range of my experiences, I could see the values and behaviors that were shared among all of them.
I am humbled by my Muslim students.
Because in the beginning, they were more accepting of my religion than I was of theirs.