As a part of Diversity 411, religious leader and Islamic Studies professor Dr. Ingrid Mattson visited West Chester University on Friday, Nov. 6 in Sykes Theater from 11 a.m. to noon to encourage students to disassociate the Muslim faith from the extreme images frequently displayed in contemporary media outlets.
Dr. Mattson emphasized that it is important that we, as students, strive to learn about cultures outside of our realm of experience. History has proven time and time again that a lack of understanding of differences between groups can lead to closed-mindedness, discrimination, and blatant bigotry. This occurrence is especially true for the world’s Muslim population who are constantly framed in the media almost exclusively with frightening images of violent terrorism.
In the United States, anti-Muslim sentiment has been on the rise since the tragic events occurring and following Sept. 11, 2001. More recently, ISIS has garnered international media attention as the terroristic organization has taken over lands and engaged in horrifying acts of brutality.
Dr. Mattson began her talk by discussing how the history of Muslim discrimination dates back to the Crusades. She then went on to cite examples of how Muslim culture has embedded itself into the American culture as well.
For instance, she pointed out that on the ceiling of the Library of Congress, there is a giant circular mural with cultures they felt devoted the most to a particular category. On it, Islam is identified as having the largest contribution to physics.
Furthermore, she noted that in the Supreme Court where the justices meet, the great lawmakers centuries past are represented in the friezes on the walls. One such lawmaker was the Prophet Muhammad, who is depicted holding a copy of the Qur’an, which is the Muslim holy text.
She then focused her talk on the modern day misconceptions about Muslim women. She stated that those outside of the religion view an adherence to dress regulations, most specifically the choice some Muslims take to wear a hijab, as a sign of subservience under an oppressive religion.
Dr. Mattson felt this could not be further from the truth, as she and many other women find wearing the religious head scarf to be empowering, not crippling. Dr. Mattson expressed that it is simply part of a suitable form of dress for her and that, by wearing it, she is reminded of not only her religious identity, but also the morals and principles that she strives to follow in her everyday life.
Aside from wardrobe choice, Dr. Mattson also regaled to the audience that this weak interpretation of Muslim women has existed for years. This brought about a re-telling of the biblical story featuring Abraham (“Ibrahim” in the Qur’an) sending off his Muslim servant and their son upon his wife Sarah becoming pregnant.
In the Bible, Dr. Mattson said that Hagar (pronounced “Hajar” in the Qur’an) is treated as “pathetic” and that we are supposed to “feel sorry for her.” However, in the Qur’an, she is revered as a matriarch and is referred to with the utmost respect and praise for her bravery in her travels and her unwavering faith in the lord.
Taking the discussion back to the present, Dr. Mattson was also sure to emphasize important female Muslim figures today. She spoke about Malala Yousafzai, the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and her ambitious work to dismantle sexist educational systems and provide scholastic outlets for oppressed girls around the world. Yemini journalist and other Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman was brought into the discussion as.
She followed with a slideshow of a multitude of noteworthy female Muslim world leaders. With a wink to the audience, she pointed out how, while these “oppressed” Muslim women have gone on to be powerful pioneers for social change, the United States still seems to be grappling with the idea of having a woman president.
Dr. Mattson talked about what differences she, as a Canadian, noticed between the United States and Canada’s depiction of Muslim culture in the mass media. She noted that on one of Canada’s most popular television networks, there is a show called “Little Mosque on the Prairie” that lasted for six seasons.
In contrast, there is not a mainstream, popular show featuring an all-Muslim cast in the United States. This show, she feels, is just one example of how Canada is “more multi-cultural.” On the political side, Dr. Mattson observed that Canadian Mayor Naheed Nenchi is one of the most popular of all the politicians.
When focused on what the most common misconception about Muslims she faces, Dr. Mattson affirmed, “the idea that Muslims are religious fundamentalists is completely false.”
She embellished this statement by explaining that not all Muslims are so rigid in their religious observances, that many people follow their faith through a variety of interpretations, and that the extremist views depicted in the mass media are simply not representative of the culture at large.
In addition, Dr. Mattson wished that more people knew about the recent Tinesian democratic revolution, which is a prime example of modern day Muslims and peaceful cultural reform.
Dr. Mattson pointed out that while going to a specialized event is always a good start to get acquainted with a new topic, one afternoon simply is not enough time to adequately capture any given subject. This is why it is imperative to seek out other sources of information.
Dr. Mattson recommends reading “The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity” by George Washington University Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Dr. Mattson also promotes Nasr’s translation of the Qur’an.
Information about Mattson and her work can be found at www.ingridmattson.org.
WCU is home to the Muslim Student Association, and any inquiries about future events they hold can be answered on their Facebook page “West Chester University Muslim Student Association” or by contacting their president, Raabia Khan, at RK802577@wcupa.edu.
Halle Nelson is a second-year student majoring in communication studies with minors in English literature and deaf studies. She can be reached at HN824858@wcupa.edu.