How My Muslim Students Made Me a Better Person


Among the baby pictures, reports on summer activities and other news reported by my many former students on Facebook, I saw this status update about a week ago: “… it’s good to see fear-mongers called out for spreading misinformation …”

Linked to the post was this commentary from The New York Times on the furor that has erupted over the Islamic Center proposed for a site that is two blocks from Ground Zero.

According to opponents—or perhaps we should call them political opportunists—the center is an affront to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attack and a “monument to terrorism.”

The former student who posted the link is Muslim. Her name is Azeema. I also taught her sisters Mariam and Najeeba, along with dozens of other young Muslim women back before that brilliantly beautiful September day.

I lived and worked in New York City on the day of the attacks, and I saw many Muslims (clearly identifiable from their clothing) covered in dust, streaming north from the site. Over the next few months, the newspaper and television tributes to victims included many Muslim faces and names.

But most of the Muslims I know personally were my students. Knowing them as I do, I’m pained by the bigotry and ignorance shown over the Islamic Center. It threatens to strangle both our ideals of religious freedom and our hopes for better understanding with Muslims worldwide. And I hate to think that my smart, funny, lovely former students have to face this ugliness every day.

If you care about someone, you care about their burdens. That is why teachers feel it when they hear Latino students derided as “anchor babies,” LGBT kids taunted with “that’s so gay” or Muslim students struggle against the conflation of Islam and terrorism. Empathetic teachers can help all their students learn to imagine the experiences of others. That is good. Their students will need all the help they can get to avoid becoming grown-ups who hate in turn.


It is refreshing to see your

Submitted by thom phillips on 13 August 2010 - 8:59am.

It is refreshing to see your comments. we here in Rutherford County, 37 miles from Nashville, Tennessee have been confronted by the emotional/political/religious outcry of citizens opposed to the building of a Mosque on the outskirts of our town. The Islamic community has had a mosque since 1985 but have outgrown it's 2500 sqft of space. It has been a polarizing event in this community and both sides, those of us in support of the Islamic community and those opposed seem to easily demonize one another. We humans can "dehumanize" at the blink of an eye it seems.

Yes, don’t make a conclusion

Submitted by Nick on 3 August 2010 - 5:36am.

Yes, don’t make a conclusion on the basis of few bad examples. We are at first human then Christians or Muslim etc.

Go to an Arab-Muslim country

Submitted by Cruz Bryan on 5 August 2010 - 5:28am.

Go to an Arab-Muslim country and then decide. Right now, the reality is the terrorism going on in the world is almost entirely Muslim-based. Extremist Muslims are a huge percentage of the Muslim population whether we like it or not. That's not to say that there isn't a big portion of moderate and tolerant Muslims but we need to be on guard against the major source of trouble wherever it may be.
Look at any Arab-Muslim country and tell me the people are free to follow any religion they choose, or express themselves however they like, etc. Free speech, freedom of religion, these are the things that make life worth living and virtually no Arab-Muslim nations have that. Iran, Iraq (and I've actually been there), Saudia Arabi, Syria, and so on. It's not a race thing but not all cultures are good and peaceful or worth supporting. Let's have some objectivity here.

Hi and may peace be upon you.

Submitted by alif zailani on 29 June 2012 - 12:33pm.

Hi and may peace be upon you. My name is Alif and I'm from Singapore. I happened to stumble on your post with regards to Extreamist muslim and arab countries. Yes I am a muslim, but that a side, I just want to give some opinions and right some mistaken facts. 1st of all,kthe issue on the numbers of Extreamist muslims people to the non extreamist. The numbers of the non is actually the majority compared to the so called extreamist. Well we call these people extreamist muslims, but the fact is they are just terrorist. Cause really, islam teaches us to love one and other, no matter the race or religion. So how can these people be an extream muslim when their intentions is really destruction? Media does many things to influence us humans to believe on what they want us to believe. Without a doubt, these terrorists, comes from a muslim background, but it isn't right to link a certain wrong doing with a religion. Not your fault on naming them extreami3t muslims cause that is what the media wants to portray and place it in our brains. Now, for the 2nd part, its the issue with arabic countries do not practice religious freedom. Well the actual truth is, they do. I do have friends who have lives and grows up there since the day they were born, and trust me, some are christians, jewish and muslims. Have you been to a place called Masjidil Haram? If you have yet to go there, then i recommend that you give it a visit. You'll be shock that you can find that there are jewish and muslims sharing about the same place to do on their prayers. That is just one example out of the many that exist. Dont get me wrong on my intentions, I just want to share some facts with you about some things where you might have over looked on. I hope to hear from you soon, so as we could discuss on things whereby both have doubts in. With regards, Alif.

Actually, you are wrong, if

Submitted by Ilyas on 10 April 2012 - 4:52pm.

Actually, you are wrong, if you look the definition of Terrorist, and you see what group of people are doing the most, you will see it's hispanics that are actually the largest in terrorist activity. Go ahead, look it up. Not arabs, not the middle east, Hispanics... And what are Hispanics? 99 Percent of them are CHRISTIAN. Thank you, have a nice day. Do your research before opening your mouth.

A brilliant American

Submitted by Lila on 14 May 2011 - 3:37pm.

A brilliant American Historian, Howard Zinn, wrote in his book "Artists in Time of War" on the issue of terrorism. Please try to have a more coherent and gobal answer on terrorism. And consider the fact some non-Arab or Muslim countries are or did practice a form of terrosism, that's is to say bombing innoncents for the reason that they have to fight the bad people in a precise place. Whethe the killing were done by a group of minority or an army it remains terorism... America killed more in Iraq than the people who died on 9/11. It did worst in Vietnam. Reread your history books or newspaper.

Oh yes it is a race thing in

Submitted by Ron Myers on 16 August 2010 - 12:47pm.

Oh yes it is a race thing in some countries. I lived in Malaysia for 3 years. If you are a Malay and want to become a Christian you must relinquish your race! That is you give up all entitlements of being a Malay, such as owning land. At the time I lived there, 30 years ago, I considered the flavor of Islam practiced there very progressive in so many other respects. They interpreted the teachings in the Koran for the modern world and tried to follow the spirit rather than the "letter of the law" approach common in many other places. This has been eroded over the years with the rise of fundamentalism around the world in so many religions. I hope America does not go down the road of allowing the intolerance we see in so many of those countries that are so militantly defensive of Islam inside their borders.

You say to have some

Submitted by Patty Martinez on 12 August 2010 - 10:49pm.

You say to have some objectivity, after you make generalizations about a group of people. How is that objective? I'm Christian, and I know there are some psycho "Christians" out there who kill doctors who perform abortions. I don't want to be categorized along with them. Why would other Muslims want to be categorized along with terrorists? I'm also Caucaucasian; don't lump me in with Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bombing guy, either.

What's your point about Arab countries? We're in the U.S. Muslims are here by choice or were born here. I'm sure they appreciate having freedom of speech and religion like the rest of us. Why would they think otherwise?

Based on this logic, we

Submitted by MeC on 11 August 2010 - 2:59pm.

Based on this logic, we should treat all white men between the ages of 30-40 as serial killers, as the largest percentage of serial killers come from this demographic. Yet I don't see them being stopped in the airport and hassled, and I would know, as I am married to one.

Your call for objectivity is sad, given the bias in your statements. There are millions of peaceful Muslims in the world.

I think your serial killer

Submitted by Based on numbers on 12 August 2010 - 6:08pm.

I think your serial killer example cannot compare to what happened in 9/11; it's apples and oranges. They are both bad, but we are talking about the very root of the cause for these attacks to the U.S. which was based on religion and hatred against a free country. I invite you to do some research; These muslim men were peaceful before they killed 4,000 people at once! Give a fair comparison and then I'll consider what you have to say.

Ok, but which is more common,

Submitted by erica on 16 August 2010 - 6:36pm.

Ok, but which is more common, serial killers or terrorist attacks? We can't judge a race, culture, ethnic, or religious group on the actions of a few people. What about the school massacres that have been breaking out in america? White teenagers aren't getting hassled at the airport. We can only protect ourselves so much, regardless of what the reason is, its not right to judge people based on stereotypes. Apples or Oranges, they're still fruit!

How about balance? The

Submitted by Maureen Costello on 6 August 2010 - 9:28am.

How about balance? The reality, too, is that most of the victims of terror in the word today are Muslims. Arabs are 12 percent of the world's Muslims. A very large part of the world's population practices Islam and rejects terrorism. There is no single Muslim culture. Many Muslims are also Americans, people who do practice religious toleration, emphasize peace and service to others, and want to build bridges. If we insist on believing that the mere fact of following this religion is prima facie evidence of being a terrorist, then we are abandoning all the freedoms and ideals that bind us as Americans: religious toleration, due process and the rule of law, and an open society. Prove that specific individuals or groups are terrorists, yes. Don't paint an entire group, including many peaceful Americans who make valuable contributions to our society, with the same brush.