A White girl’s guide to: Christian privilege

Photo courtesy of Brittany Wells and Marley Bangert | Staff Writer Brittany Wells continues her series as she examines the treatment of Muslim students and faculty on campus and in life, with help from CFJ Muslim Chaplin Tala Ali.

It’s been a rough day. All day long you’ve felt the stares of your peers pierce through the back of your head; you’ve felt acutely responsible for saying precisely the right thing, and you feel the weight of representing all Christians every time you speak. You come back to your dorm room and your best friend is sitting on your bed, ready to hug you. Joyfully, your friend exclaims, “I tolerate you!”

Think tolerance is enough? Think again.

Tala Ali, Muslim chaplain at Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice (CFJ) and Xavier alumna, is undeviatingly, profoundly and legitimately American. Ali is American in class. Ali is American in the grocery store. Ali is American in her Hijab.

“I am an American, and there’s nothing un-American about my faith,” Ali said.

Whether aware of it or not, many Americans assume being Muslim negates being American. It seems that “One nation under God” has become “one nation under my God, and if your God isn’t my God, then there isn’t room for you here.”

“My religion is not one that is dictated by any culture, it is applicable to any culture. I don’t have any problem navigating my Americanness with my faith…I can contribute to the fabric of American culture and discourse as a Muslim, and I have no problem doing it.”

Kirk Semple, for the New York Times, said that Farha Abbasi, assistant professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University and an expert in Muslim mental health, said that since the Sept. 11 attacks, young Muslims in the United States have dealt with “chronic trauma” from the constant stress of anti-Muslim sentiment.

“When you watch the news…(if) there’s a crime that happens, and if it’s a Muslim, then it’s relevant to say ‘Muslim’ to the media…it all becomes about that person committing the crime as a Muslim. Everyone else…they talk about their mental illness, what it is that they did…their life experience that may have contributed to their mental illness that led them to do what they did, but their faith is never put into question…That’s where that implicit bias comes in.”

Ali went on to speak on her personal experience as a Muslim woman.

“When you see me as a Muslim, you don’t see me as a person, but rather as a token, and if I speak, I don’t speak as myself as an individual, but I speak as the Muslim…I was always very cognizant of that (her hijab) in class…when raising my hand and wanting to comment…I worried that students or professors would not see me as a student with a valid opinion, but ‘oh, the Muslim’s viewpoint’ and not just an individual or someone who comes with my own valid life experience, not exclusive to being Muslim.” Ali wanted nothing more than “to contribute as a person, and be seen as a person, as opposed to being the spokesperson for Muslims.”

Most hate comes from ignorance, and ignorance is something Ali has experienced plenty of.

It wasn’t that the person intentionally stood there and thought ‘this woman is wearing a hijab, she can’t be American, America looks like me.’ It was more subtle than that; it was an outward representation of underlying bias.

Ali went on to present some reassuring feelings.

“I think locally this is the best university that a Muslim can go to…The faculty and staff have been nothing but supportive and receptive to any view point or feelings that I had or issues that I wanted to address…I feel like, even in this current, scary political climate, with all of my friends on social media,…reaching out to me, especially my friends in Europe who are like, ‘Are you okay?’ and ‘Things must be really scary for you.’ I find myself thinking, “‘Oh really? Is it supposed to be scary? Because I’m at Xavier, I’m in this safe inclusive bubble, and I’m so grateful for being amongst people who value plurality and religious diversity!’”

Tala is Muslim. Tala is American. Tala is a Xavier Musketeer.

Questions Christians are afraid to ask

Is the Muslim faith violent?

Tala’s response: “My faith really emphasizes the perfecting of character … I don’t think I’d be who I am today or have improved or grown as a person if I didn’t have that framework – to reflect, and to humble yourself, to apologize, to repent and to learn from it and to improve and grow. I’ve come a long way with patience and not being angry … it’s that concept that Xavier has, cura personalis, which means care for the whole person. We have that concept in Islam, too. Ali cited values of mental health, doing things for the greater good and social justice as major overlapping concepts between Christianity and Islam. While there are stereotypes, I thank God every day for being employed at a place that not only tolerates me … but we celebrate our diversity. I’m happy for the Muslim students who are here, too, because … this is a place where they are safe, and they have a space to practice their faith freely and to intentionally question and have tensions and grow in their faith, without judgment and without fear of persecution or retaliation for saying the wrong thing. You’re just free to be who you are, and to be your authentic self, and I’m grateful for Xavier for that.”

Author’s takeaway: The Muslim faith is peaceful. Cherry-picked verses often quoted by those who have not read the Quran in its entirety, such as Quran 2:191 “And kill them wherever you find them…,” as well as the infamous string of terrorists who call themselves Muslim, often lead well-meaning people, especially Christians like myself, to believe that Islam is to some degree rooted in violence. It simply isn’t. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The admittedly equally cherry picked verse found in AYAH al-Baqarah 2:190 “And make the heart of your purpose to fight those who wage war against you in Allah’s cause, but do not initiate transgression; Allah dislikes those who go beyond the limits prescribed by Him,” directly opposes the work of radical terrorist groups like ISIS that are often associated with the Muslim tradition. I would encourage you to read the text for yourself and derive your own understanding with context, but from my research of the text and interactions with Muslims, I have found them to be incredibly gentle and loving in nature. To quote the Center for Interfaith Community Engagement, “Tolerance is passive, celebration is active.” I love Tala’s Muslim tradition! One of her favorite verses from the Quran, found in Ash-Sharh (The Opening Forth) 94:6, “Verily, with every hardship comes ease,” speaks profoundly to the resilience of Islam and its people. Privilege is blinding, and so often we forget how little we really know.

Further resources on the topic can be found at the CFJ and the Center for International Education.

Further reading:

Additionally, faith sharing groups, MSA and Jumaa (Friday) prayer services welcome respectful students of all spiritual or non-spiritual backgrounds. According to the Xavier website, “Xavier attracts students of more than 15 faith traditions, including most Christian denominations as well as those from Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Shinto faiths. Religious pluralism is reality at Xavier. In line with the Ignatian value of cura personalis, care of the whole person, the CFJ is committed to helping each and every student deepen their spiritual life.”

Brittany Wells is a first year Montessori education major and staff writer for the Newswire from Cincinnati.