Amer F. Ahmed, faculty member at the Institute for Democratic Education, spoke at the Baker Center on Tuesday as part of UT’s International Education Week.
Hosted by the Honors and Scholars Programs and I-House, Ahmed’s lecture was titled “Addressing Islamophobia: Dispelling Myths to Break Down Barriers.”
In the lecture, Ahmed introduced the basics of Islamic religion, such as the Five Pillars of Islam and the religion’s emphasis on equality.
“There are lots of different understandings of Islam among its nearly 1.7 billion practitioners around the world, but what essentially every (Muslim) agrees upon is these five basic pillars,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed said that equality was an important aspect of the religion as well.
“The idea of egalitarianism is incredibly important in the Islamic religion,” Ahmed said. “The principal (of equality) is important, because no matter how rich or poor you are in society, we are all equal in the eyes of our creator.”
Ahmed then explained several myths surrounding the Islamic faith, such as women’s rights.
Many people believe women’s rights are nonexistent in Islam, Ahmed said. However, they have been present in the Islamic tradition for more than 1,000 years.
“There are rights in the Islamic tradition that were guaranteed to women over 1,400 hundred years ago that only came into Western civilization about 100 years ago,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed said that countries such as Saudi Arabia and their restrictions on women have shed a negative light on the entire faith when it comes to women’s rights.
“Now many extremists have undermined women’s rights and others’ rights in various places around the world,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed also said that Muslims are often associated with violence, and he explained the meaning of the term “jihad.”
“The term ‘jihad’ is often thought to mean ‘holy war’ and is associated with terrorists, when, in reality, it means ‘struggle’ and has a personal meaning,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed spoke about how the term has changed due to the influence of extremists.
“We see extremists manipulating this term to make rationalizations and justifications for their own agenda,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed also said that these myths often arise from different interpretations of Islam around the world.
“The line between religion and culture can be blurry for some people, and that’s true for Muslims all over the world as well,” Ahmed said.
These different interpretations have impacted the way people view Muslims in America today, Ahmed said.
“The history of Islam in America is longer than people realize … and today have a very diverse Muslim community,” Ahmed said. “We’re doctors; we’re engineers; we have two Congressmen.”
Another misconception Ahmed discussed was the assumption that Muslims are all of Arabic ancestry.
“Part of the implications of Islamaphobia don’t only impact those who identify with the religion,” Ahmed said. “Only 18 to 20 percent of Muslims are of Arabic descent. The others are white, black, etcetera.”
Ahmed then compared the Islamic faith’s egalitarian values with America’s democratic values.
“If you take Islam’s views on egalitarianism and how everyone is equal in our creator’s eyes and you take America’s democratic values and how everyone is equal in the eyes of the land, you can see that the two ideas go hand in hand,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed discussed how this assumed separation between Islamic and American values has affected Muslim Americans.
“However, many people think Islam is at odds with American values,” Ahmed said. “This speaks to American Muslims as to how we experience this sense of us not being or feeling like true Americans.”
Samantha Maness, freshman in materials science and engineering, said her biggest takeaway from Ahmed’s lecture was how similar religions can be.
“It just seems that all religions, and even ethnicities, share some common theme,” Maness said. “So they shouldn’t be as polarizing as people make them to be.”