By Ian Wendrow
Listen Up, Lansing
LANSING-Thasin Sardar first heard of the triple-murder in Chapel Hill, North Carolina through Twitter as he was about to conduct evening prayers before heading to bed.
He originally assumed the tweets were about a separate incident involving Muslims at another university in North Carolina.
It wasn’t until he awoke the next morning did he begin to see #MuslimsLivesMatter trending and news outlets covering the triple murder of Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha and her sister Razan.
“It’s truly disheartening to see,” Sardar said, speaking on the tragedy of the murders themselves and the apparent silence from major media outlets for three days after the incident occurred.
A community outreach volunteer at the Islamic Center of East Lansing, Sardar and his fellow imams at the center were reserved in their reaction to the killings.
“We decided against holding a vigil, we just wanted to honor the legacy of these three victims. Multiple faith groups reached out to offer support to us and make sure we weren’t alone in grieving for the dead,” Sardar said.
Instead, the Islamic Center conducted open prayers for the victims, reached out to the families of the slain to offer condolences, and plan to hold educational seminars about Islam in the hopes of preventing further misunderstandings and violence in the future, said Sardar.
Although the Islamic Center refrained from holding a vigil, it still encouraged Lansing’s Muslims to respectably honor the memories of the dead. Muslims in the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University held a vigil for the Chapel Hill victims on Feb. 11 in the Radiology Building, according to a Facebook post by the Muslim Student Association (MSA.)
“The MSA was heart-broken when we heard the news. I remember our e-board group message was blowing up at 5 a.m. that day and everyone was so sad because those three students were literally just like us. They weren’t extremists, they weren’t radicals, they didn’t have ties to these terrorist groups. They were regular people who wanted to help change the world for the better, they just happened to be Muslim. ‘That could have been any of us’ was what most of us thought,” said vice-president Aquila Hussain in an e-mail exchange.
Shared grief over the deaths of fellow Muslims was a recurring theme among the Islamic community in Lansing, a logical outcome of the religion’s emphasis on brotherhood and community service.
Yet despite efforts by the MSA and other Muslim organizations to be a positive force in their communities, Islamophobic incidents still occur across Michigan and the United States.
“In Dearborn there was actually an incident that occurred at a local grocery store where a father and a young son were literally beat up in public because of the religion they practiced,” Hussain said.
The surge in anti-Muslim sentiments across the United States has been well-documented. In a study done by the Arab-American Institute, results showed that only 27 percent of Americans hold a favorable view of Muslims, a lower percentage than what was seen in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
This development isn’t surprising for Mohammad Khalil, director of the Muslim Studies department at Michigan State University, whose area of research also includes Arab-American relations post-9/11.
“Muslims are stuck between a rock and a hard place because on the one hand they’re countering stories of Muslim radicals engaging in horrific and barbaric acts but on the other hand they’re dealing with Americans who have an embarrassingly simplistic perception of Islam. So how do you challenge the narrative?” he said.
Education is the primary solution for Lansing’s Muslims. According to Sardar, the Lansing Center conducts multiple open house seminars throughout the year where anyone can come in to ask questions about Islam and Muslims in general.
The MSA embraces a similar approach to community inclusion by keeping all of their meetings open to the public. They also stress the need to educate others about Islam and show that “we are all just trying to make the world a better place for our children,” said Hussain.
“There are two things that need to happen at this point: education and more encounters with Muslims. If you educate yourself you’ll have a better understanding of Muslims and their faith. When you interact with them you begin to appreciate their humanity. Their otherness is replaced with sameness. In other words, you start to see more similarities than differences with them,” Khalil said.
Amid all the grief, Lansing’s Muslims received immense outreach from other faith groups and non-Muslims in the area.
The Islamic Center was approached by multiple religious groups from the Lansing area expressing their condolences and donating to them according to Sardar. Hussain also pointed out that the MSA received numerous tweets and expressions of solidarity from MSU students.
“I think they’re a really peaceable religion and really misunderstood,” said Julia Johnson, a senior at Michigan State University majoring in religious studies.
Having worked with various interfaith groups across campus, Johnson repeated the view that education was the best way to clear up lingering misunderstandings about Islam.
“If you’re not trying to seek out to understand the religion you’re not really exposed to it, and that ignorance can lead people to have negative stereotypes or take action that will probably be very misguided” she said.
Brianna Lewis, an animal science major at MSU, holds an optimistic view of American-Muslim relations should there be greater public exposure to the Muslim community.
“I think we’ll get a lot more used to the idea of Muslims being with us the more they live here and just do their thing,” Lewis said. “Hopefully, everyone will seem them as American as they do.”