Exchange students share experiences with Islam, dispel myths

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Melena Warden
BYU junior Melena Warden, far right, and the Saadaldeen family spend time in Athens, Greece. Warden spent about a month and a half living with the Saadaldeen family in Greece. Warden said living with the Saadaldeens, who are Muslim, taught her things she would like to apply to her own worship. (Melena Warden)

It’s 6 a.m. in Greece and BYU Arabic and middle eastern studies major Melena Warden wakes up to her daily alarm — a recording of a man reading the Quran in Arabic.

Warden spent about a month and a half living with a Muslim family in Greece, and is currently completing her junior core in Jordan. She said it was incredible to see how the family’s religion is such an integral part of who they are and how much they love God and the scriptures.

“From their hearts, they loved the scriptures. They loved the word of God so much that they would just show that,” she said.

However, Warden’s positive experience with Islam doesn’t reflect the views of most Americans, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey.

The survey reported Americans feel “coolest” towards Muslims more than any other religious group, and 75 percent of American Muslims said there is “a lot of discrimination” against Muslims in the U.S., according to a different 2017 Pew Research Center survey.

President Donald Trump mirrored these negatives attitudes in his controversial Nov. 29 re-tweets of three anti-Muslim videos originally posted by a leader of far-right British group, Britain First. They also have been reflected in Trump’s attempts at a travel-ban aimed toward Muslim-majority countries.

While these negative feelings persist, the Pew survey also showed Americans are becoming increasingly receptive to Muslims, especially among millennials.

What is Islam?

BYU professor Daniel Peterson specializes in Asian and near eastern languages, Islam and the Quran. He said Islam is monotheistic, meaning Muslims worship only one God.

According to Peterson, many people think Muslims worship a different deity than Christians or Jews. However, Peterson said the term “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for “God.”

Mutaz Bawaneh
Mutaz Bawaneh is a senior studying international relations at BYU. Bawaneh, from Jordan, said he celebrates his Islamic culture by educating others about his religion. (Mutaz Bawaneh)

BYU international relations student Mutaz Bawaneh is from Jordan. Bawaneh said he celebrates his Islamic culture by educating others about his religion.

“For me, implementing my culture is more of teaching people what it is, kind of like trying to clarify the misconceptions,” Bawaneh said.

Islam is not only a religion but a way of life, according to Bawaneh.

“The way you deal with people, the way you conduct yourself — whether it’s socially, economically or even politically — Islam has its own political paradigm, its own economic ideas and its own social standards for people to abide by,” Bawaneh said.

Warden said the family she lived with, the Saadaldeens, had an alarm that would go off five times a day to remind them to pray. She said they would prepare by washing before praying.

“We cried together about our desire to be close to God,” Warden said. “Their actions were so centered around making sure they practice (their religion).”

Warden said the Saadaldeen family taught her things she wants to apply to her religious worship and actions.

Both Warden and Bawaneh said they have benefitted from their cross-religious experiences. Bawaneh said his experiences in Utah have been positive because Utahns focus on the similarities between religions.

“Throughout the years, it came to be more of trying to clarify what my faith is, what my religion is, because a lot of people here are not particularly aggressive towards Muslims,” Bawaneh said. “But I can say a lot of people are not the most knowledgeable of what Islam is in Utah.”

Debunking myths about Islam

Understanding more about Muslims and their religion, Islam, is the key to debunking the stereotype that all Muslims are terrorists, according to Peterson.

“Many people in the West don’t know Muslims and frankly don’t know much about Islamic history,” Peterson said.

Many people see things in the news, like suicide bombings, and think it’s Islam because the news shows the exceptions and not the daily good deeds, according to Peterson.

“That can give you a warped view if the only things you know are the exceptions,” Peterson said.

Bawaneh said extreme Islam is similar to extreme Christianity or extreme Judaism — it’s taking a peaceable faith and taking it to extremes.

“In many cases, Muslim extremists don’t understand their religion very well,” Peterson said. “They see it as something to be forced on others when the Quran itself says there should be no coercion or compulsion with religion.”

Warden explained extremism as “ignoring the basis of Islam and the foundational principles” of the religion.

Why these myths exist

Melena Warden
Warden poses in her hijab outside the hotel in Athens where she stayed with the Saadaldeen family. The hijab is a symbol of faith and devotion to God and a sign of purity, modesty, and respect for the body. Warden said, “As I continue to spend my time with this wonderful family, I continuously learn what it means to follow God and receive peace and strength from him in all life’s suffering and uncertainty.” (Melena Warden)

The Western stereotype connecting Muslims and terrorists in the United States is a defensive reaction against terrorist attacks because Americans have been attacked so much, according to Warden.

“Judging 1.5 billion people on the actions of people who do not even represent a statistically significant fraction of Islam … is unfair and unjust to the millions of Muslims who are trying to go about with their life, achieving what normal people are trying to do — get a happy life, a house with a fence and kids running in the backyard,” Bawaneh said.

Many people don’t think every terrorist is a Muslim, but do believe that there is a tendency for every Muslim to adapt to terrorist ideals, according to Bawaneh.

Bawaneh said this point is invalid because terrorists have “every human part” stripped away from themselves.

“I think that’s a huge misconception about Islam — that Islam gives you all these justifications, all these reasons that you can go about and kill people,” Bawaneh said. “That’s not true at all. Islam doesn’t teach that at all.”

One religious term often misinterpreted in Islam is “jihad.” People tend to think the term means “holy war,” when in fact it comes from a root that means “to exert effort” or “to really try,” according to Peterson.

Peterson said jihad is the practical application of things. He said Muslims would think it strange to just sit around reading scriptures and praying all day, whereas jihad encourages the idea of getting out and doing something.

Terrorist groups have taken jihad to be a “holy declaration of war against nonbelievers,” Bawaneh said, “because in (the terrorists’) world, they cannot believe in a world where coexistence is a key concept, and that is against the teachings of Islam.”

Bawaneh said for “jihad” there are rules in Islam that one must abide by within the context of war. Even back in the prophet Muhammed’s time, going to war meant not fighting non-combatants, children, women or elderly people. Bawaneh said the rules, belief and practice of jihad is completely different than what extremists have interpreted it to be.

“Even in times of war, Islam teaches that you are not even allowed to burn down a tree or cut a tree or slaughter an animal unless you are eating them,” Bawaneh said. “So if we are caring so much about those minimal details, it doesn’t really sound logical to say that Islam promotes hatred or promotes ideas that can be radicalized.”

According to Peterson, jihad also means fighting the enemy inside oneself in order to remain faithful.

Today, Peterson said, some Muslims will say their “jihad” is to build stronger relationships with people of other faiths, the economy in their city or country, or a stronger educational system for their family.

Bawaneh said politics has a great effect on defining what the picture of Islam is, especially with the growth of terrorism and radical ideologies within Muslim communities and throughout the world.

“Sometimes I understand the connection that people make between terrorism and Islam. But it’s not about connection … because in no way does Islam teach to kill people or to commit those heinous crimes that we see on TV that are committed by ISIS, al-Qaida or whoever terrorist groups that claim they do it for the sake of Islam,” Bawaneh said. “They’ve ruined the image of Islam, and then the modern Muslims have to rise up and talk about it.”

Warden said most Muslims seek to reassure others that these acts of terrorism are not what Islam is or teaches.

Peterson said people regularly ask him why radical Muslims aren’t excommunicated from Islam. Peterson said this is because Islam doesn’t have a central organization or authority to excommunicate. He compared it to Protestantism, where there isn’t one specific leader or head.

Warden said because there is no central leadership, there are many variances of Islam. Similarly, Bawaneh said Islam is also something that adapts to local culture.

How to become educated on Islam

Peterson, Warden and Bawaneh said the best way to learn about Muslims and Islam is to get to know the Muslims in the community and ask Muslims questions about their religion.

“The thing that cures fear … is just knowing a little bit more and getting to know the people,” Peterson said.

The Utah Valley Islamic Center welcomes visitors on Fridays between 1:30 and 2:15 p.m. The Muslim Student Association of BYU is an organization on campus with the purpose of providing faith-based support and creating unity among Muslim students.

“There’s opportunity on campus to ask fellow students about their faith and befriend them and to dissipate the falsity that surrounds (Muslims),” Warden said. “The more that people are willing to educate themselves, it will spread.”

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