ARTICLE

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 …” 

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.