The Middle Ground

First of all, what campus organization are you involved in and how do you think that is related to, contributes to, or even contradicts in some way, your identity?

I’m part of the Muslim Students Association (MSA) here. I’m also part of the Center for Student Diversity. I think both of those reflect my relatively unique position as a minority in this College, as a person of color and as a Muslim, a minority religion. Those are the two main groups that I’m part of. They sort of represent me.

Getting to a deeper question here, you mentioned being a Muslim and being a person of color. I feel like all those terms are what society imposes on people. It irks me a lot when I have to identify with something that is handed to me like that.

Even though I just used it, the term “person of color” has always struck as weird: of what color? I guess it’s just not a white person. In that way it’s weird to have to identify yourself in that way. We are all different. I do understand why people need to generalize in those terms because it is a country that’s about 80% Caucasians, so they have to have some kind of a moniker for everyone that’s not part of their group. But yes, I do think that sometimes just using that term covers all the differences that exist within minority groups in general.

What about being a Muslim? Do you feel like in the group you have more freedom talking about your religious identity or restricted in some sense? Does the MSA as a group perfectly align with what you believe in and how you practice? Does our campus accept that?

I’ve been pretty satisfied with the MSA experience. But in terms of whether it perfectly aligns, probably not. First of all, everyone practices Islam differently; it’s just the reality of religion. When you meld a bunch of people into a group, you are never going to get the same way of practicing. In my special situation, I practice Shi’a Islam, so it’s very different from Sunni Islam. Because Sunni Islam is the majority, a lot of the Muslim groups in colleges tend to address Sunni Muslims. It’s just something you get used to as time goes on. It’s definitely something I keep in mind every time I listen to lectures and stuff. They might reference certain books and certain thinkers whom I don’t really care for. In that sense, yes it’s not a perfect alignment. As far as on campus, in general it’s a pretty small Muslim population. I understand if there’s not a huge emphasis on it. For example, we’ve tried to get a prayer room and halal food. I totally understand why we would want that, but I also understand that the school has to deal with so many different people. I’m not saying that we should accept any marginalization or oppression; but I’m aware of our relatively small status as a community, and why our school or any other organization might not have the resources to accommodate us specifically.

That’s something we don’t often hear from people. These days, people tend to fall on two extremes; either they don’t care enough, or they care in an activist’s sense, so they go out and demand things. But I feel like this standpoint of being able to accept what you have but also strive for more, the middle ground so to speak, is really hard to hold. What is your take on this?

Everyone has different expectations from the group. When you go into something expecting a lot and you don’t get it, your cognitive reaction is going to be wanting more. I try not to expect more than what I think the school or the group has resources to give. I truly believe the idea of the middle ground. To me the truth is always, aside from a few special cases, somewhere in the middle. I don’t have this binary view on everything. I understand that context matters and numbers matter. With all these things taken into account, the world is not black and white. That’s why I’ve always been moderate on certain issues.

And you think that’s definitely different from complacency.

Yes. You should be striving to improve society from within; you should push for more and call out the things that are wrong. But I also believe that you need a sense of practicality and realism. For example, if you are voting for President, you might be very left-wing, or socialist or Marxist in some sense, but you are aware that it’s just not a realistic scenario to have your kind of leader leading this country. What you can do is to push the current president or the person in line more left. You keep making changes through that way, because changes are gradual and they can’t happen suddenly unless it’s a complete revolution, which obviously happens very rarely.

In American society today when people think of Muslims they don’t tend to think of them as moderates. But when you consider an entire population, extremists are extremists; by definition they can never be the majority. What is your take on this perception of extremism that misrepresents Islam?

We see things in the media because they are extreme. If they were the majority, they wouldn’t be in the media; they wouldn’t be on TV or get talked about. I think, because for a lot of people in this country the only thing they see about Muslims is what’s in the media, it totally makes sense that, even if you try to be more self-aware about the fact that this is the media and these are extremists, your mind is conditioned to think a certain way. Sometimes it’s hard to overcome that. There’s a lot evidence showing that, if you just know someone from a certain group, your hostility towards them is down by some ridiculous percentage. It’s really contact and knowledge that’s the problem. If all you know about a group of people is what you see in the media, then you are getting an incredibly warped perspective, because the media will only show the exceptional stuff, because that’s their job. I like the idea of the “Meet a Muslim” event that the MSA is doing. Sometimes Muslims are not in the mood to talk about their religion. We are just like any other people, but to create a certain event where we condition ourselves to be in that mode is a smart thing.

That’s also something interesting. There seems to be this conflict for so-called minority groups in the United States, people who are not white or Christians. There seem to be two forces pulling them. One is that you should assert your grounds, assert who you are and what you believe in, and then you make other people understand your uniqueness and why that uniqueness must be preserved. On the other hand, they want to show that we are just like you. We learned the same things, went to the same kinds of schools, and we believe in the same values. How do you balance those two things? In the case of Islam, for example, are you willing to talk about it with friends? How much are you willing to say that these are good values that you want to preserve through generations?

That’s an interesting question. It depends on the time of day whether I want to talk about religion or not. In general, if someone is willing to ask and listen, I will tell them. That’s actually part of the faith, to explain questions and be as knowledgeable as you can, while putting the fact down that you are not a scholar but just a regular follower. Just like Christians are not all priests; they don’t know everything and they haven’t memorized the entire Bible. I felt the way that I always have and I try to tell people my experiences. In terms of being dragged in the two different ways, you raised a really good point, because there’s always this contradiction between wanting more diversity and social justice, between equality and acknowledging that you are different and that you have different experiences. How I see it is that I consider myself pretty much like everyone else, but I don’t hide from my background or who I am. I do tell them this is who I am, what I do, where I came from, and this is who my parents are and what I believe in, while also maintaining the fact that the way I’ve grown up here is like everyone else. I’m going to the same school as you and listen to the same kind of music. But I do have a unique background compared to the majority of the population. No problem in admitting that.

What do you think of other people’s perception of you? When they see an MSA poster or go to an MSA event, do you often think, “What are those people thinking of us, or how are we presenting our image to them?”

You definitely think about it. I’m always trying to wonder how it feels for an average person to walk by some MSA event. Some people might not even know that we exist on campus. I actually didn’t know that there was an MSA on campus until I researched it online. I’ve definitely tried to get into the minds of other people, and I’ve kept that in mind how I conduct myself and how people perceive and interpret different things. Sometimes I think it’s to a fault because I really don’t think it’s as important as I sometimes make it out to be. But yeah I do keep other people’s perceptions in mind.

In your time here at the College, have you experienced any aggression or things of that nature, if you want to talk about it?

Thankfully no. I’ve not experienced much in person, but obviously I’ve experienced it online. The Internet is the Internet. You face that all the time. Other than that, I haven’t faced anything particularly vitriolic, or at least nothing that I’m conscious of. Maybe micro-aggressions happened that I wasn’t aware of. But I realize that a lot it is because, one, I’m a guy, and two, I am not outwardly anything except my skin color. I don’t have anything for people to look at.

So you think that, if somebody had something to look at, they would have a greater risk?

Perhaps. You could tell by looking at me that I’m probably South Asian of some sort, but there are so many South Asians on campus so it’s probably not such a thing that people particularly pay attention to. If I was wearing a beard and a hat like some people of my faith would, they would definitely feel much more different than people who weren’t wearing that. I’m very aware that I’m pretty privileged in the sense that I don’t have anything to outwardly define me within this community. Maybe if I went to a school that is very homogenized, I would notice it more, but here I don’t have those complaints.

It seems to me that the fear that people have towards some religious and ethnic groups simply stems from the fact that they don’t understand what those people are saying and doing.

I think there’s a lot of work in neuroscience to be done about that. Even when you are conscious of the fact that there is nothing to be worried about, you feel it; it’s just a nature human feeling. When we see something different, we are conditioned to feel that way. I think the difference between somebody who partakes in bigotry and someone who is just ignorant or unaware lies in the conscious awareness of the fact that you have natural aversions to something that’s different. Just being conscious of that separates people who are problematic and people who are not so problematic.

You might have gotten asked a lot about this as a Muslim, but what is your take on the phenomenon that is Donald Trump?

I’ve become really numb to the Trump stuff. I probably don’t take it as seriously as I should I acknowledge that. A lot of people take that way more seriously than I do. It is a problem. It sets bad precedents, but I think the bigger problem is that it was even a possibility in the first place for someone like him to bring this hatred out in people. The hatred was already there. There was just no platform for it to be expressed, and Trump gave them that platform. If it wasn’t Trump, it would have been someone else, and that is a bigger issue than the figure that is Trump. Obviously Trump is who he is, but he is more of a figurehead than the actual problem.

Where are you from and what was your experience growing up as a Muslim?

I was born in DC and my parents immigrated to this country from Pakistan. I lived in northern Virginia for most of my life. There’s a bunch of different ethnicities around there. I wasn’t ever in a place where I was significantly different. The only time I felt really different, in a population sense, not in the sense of being treated differently or badly, was in high school. In my high school, there were essentially white people and black people, and very little in between. Also I should mention that I lived in Hong Kong for four years, and the school was mostly Chinese kids. But because it was an international school, pretty much everyone from everywhere came, so it wasn’t really that bad. It was little bit of an experience.

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