Eight days after Muslim extremists attacked French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, Cal Poly’s Muslim Student Association (MSA) President, Munir Eltal, stood before a crowded University Union conference room. It overflowed with spectators in chairs, on the floor and lining the hallway, all anxious to learn about Islam.
The event’s announced title was “The Five Pillars of Islam,” but Eltal suspected the discussion would quickly digress from that topic — and that’s exactly what he wanted.
“The five pillars don’t address issues I think people are more interested in when they talk about Islam,” he said. “People are curious: What’s a Muslim? What are they doing? Why do they seem to hate us all?”
Though Eltal had prepared a PowerPoint presentation and 90 minutes’ worth of talking points for last Thursday’s event, his plans were quickly overrun by questions from the audience. People asked about topics ranging from women’s roles in Islam to the Qur’an’s approach to violence.
Eltal didn’t mind.
“If you want to stem the tide of any Islamophobia, any ignorance, all you can do is educate,” he said.
The Charlie Hebdo massacre presented Cal Poly students with a crucial opportunity to learn about Islam. Eltal wanted to take advantage of the successful turnout to educate about issues most San Luis Obispo residents wouldn’t normally encounter.
“We live in the San Luis Obispo bubble where everyone’s happy and jolly,” Eltal said. “It’s the happiest place on Earth, and relatively, there are no issues here. No one’s persecuted for their faiths or beliefs.”
While Muslim students might not feel targeted on campus, he said, it’s not necessarily because their peers know better — it’s because they don’t care.
Apathy is the main perpetrator of ignorance about Islam on Cal Poly’s campus, Eltal said.
“When you don’t have issues around you, it’s really hard to feel for them,” he said. “People here don’t know Muslims. It’s a minority group, so it’s no one’s fault. How are you going to meet them? When you don’t know someone or can’t connect with them on a social, personal or spiritual level, you’re going to be apathetic as a result. And that’s what you get at this school.”
Religious studies professor Stephen Lloyd-Moffett, who teaches Islam (RELS 304), said Cal Poly’s lack of diversity is largely at fault for students’ apathy.
“We can easily go a week without the need to encounter someone who’s that different from us,” he said. “It’s an easier place to not be confronted with difference.”
And when people don’t directly interact with Islam, they have an easier time making assumptions about it.
“It’s very easy to demonize some abstraction,” Lloyd-Moffett said.
Muslim students compose a particularly small minority at Cal Poly. For example, the MSA has approximately 30 active members, Eltal said. Few Cal Poly students get the chance to meet Muslims, meaning they miss out on one of the best ways to learn about the religion.
“If people start hearing about Islam from Muslims, or just even get to know a Muslim, then they’ll immediately connect with them better and put a face to it,” he said.
As it is, many Muslims are burdened by widespread, damaging misconceptions about their religion. Five common misunderstandings are listed below, followed by clarification from experts on Islam in the Cal Poly community.
1. Muslims are all Arab
Lloyd-Moffett said one of the biggest misunderstandings about Islam is that Muslims are all Arab.
According to the 2010 Pew Report, Arab Muslims are actually the minority, whereas 62.1 percent of Muslims actually live in South and Southeast Asia.
“We tend to forget the diversity within Islam,” Lloyd-Moffett said. “Yet we embrace it in every other instance.”
The 2010 Pew Report estimated there are 1.57 billion Muslims worldwide, spanning many countries and cultural traditions. Islamic traditions meld with their surrounding cultures like all religions, Lloyd-Moffett said, so most controversies surrounding Islam stem from cultural traditions rather than the religion itself.
Lloyd-Moffett suggested students go to the Mosque of Nasreen in San Luis Obispo and witness the diversity for themselves.
“We have this view that Muslims are Arab,” he said, “but if you go to the mosque you see Iranians, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Africans — the most diverse place on a Friday in San Luis Obispo is the mosque.”
President of the Islamic Society of San Luis Obispo County Naiyerah Kolkailah said Islam is the common denominator between countless different traditions.
“Islam lays down certain foundations and certain beliefs and certain basic practices, and then it accommodates people’s different cultures,” Kolkailah said. “That’s why it’s important also to understand Islam is not monolithic. The Islamic worldwide community is not monolithic.”
2. Islam oppresses women
Kolkailah said Islam suffers from a reputation of repressing women, especially regarding the hijab, a head covering some Muslim women wear in public to uphold the ideal of modesty.
Kolkailah, a life-long Muslim, said her experience wearing a hijab has been far from repressive.
The hijab protects women from societal standards of beauty, she said, freeing them to beautify themselves internally.
“It saddens me to see so many girls feel pressured to lose weight and look a certain way to please other people,” she said. “You see so many plastic surgeries and extreme dieting, and what for? Because society expects it.”
Kolkailah said strangers sometimes react offensively to her hijab without knowing its true meaning.
“I had experiences, especially after 9/11, with people making comments in the street and guys in their big trucks yelling things out,” she said. “I’ve had people telling me, ‘You’re in America now, you can take that off.’ Things like that reek of ignorance.”
When Kolkailah clarifies the meaning behind the hijab to fellow Cal Poly students, she usually gets positive responses, she said.
“When I explain the concept of the hijab and women’s cover, they themselves find it empowering because we are living in a society that objectifies women and uses women’s bodies as sex objects to sell cars, electronics, even cosmetics, using different parts of women’s bodies to sell things,” she said.
Lloyd-Moffett said Islamic cultures’ treatment of women usually varies based on geographical region. While some Islamic states practice female circumcision or do not permit women to drive, others have had women as head of state — a line the United States has yet to cross.
“If you want to find examples of repression of women, there are plenty out there,” he said. “If you want to find examples of really progressive views on women, there are plenty out there.”
Lloyd-Moffett used Afghan burqas, which cover women’s entire bodies except their eyes, as an example of this cultural variance.
“There’s nothing in the Qur’an advocating that a woman can only show her eyes, but that’s in Afghanistan,” he said. “If you go to Turkey, it’s like a fashion capital for women. Making broad statements about the role of women is difficult because it’s very localized to the place.”
3. Muslims don’t appreciate Christians and Jews
Lloyd-Moffett said most people think Islam looks down on Christians and Jews, when in fact Islam reveres Christianity and Judaism, considering them sibling religions and categorizing their followers as “people of the Book.”
Islam views many of the Bible’s characters — including Abraham, Moses, Jesus and John the Baptist — as prophets who carried a message from God.
“While those prophets had a very clear message, humans didn’t always perceive that message in the right way, so the message of God was convoluted over time,” Lloyd-Moffett said.
Muslims believe that while Christians and Jews mistook the prophets’ messages and ended up with incomplete faiths, they still warrant respect.
Lloyd-Moffett said Islam’s positive approach to older, related religions is atypical.
“Usually if another religion appears in a religion, it’s negative,” he said. “This is one of few times where another religion is called out for honor. They don’t have the complete truth, but they deserve honor because God worked through them.”
4. Muslims worship Muhammad and/or Allah instead of God
Monotheism is central to Islam, with God being the only entity worthy of worship, Lloyd-Moffett said. Muslims do not worship Muhammad — while they believe he was the final and greatest prophet, he was also entirely human.
Muhammad’s role in Islam was to act as an exemplary Muslim and a mouthpiece for God, who Muslims believe spoke directly through Muhammad’s body in a series of recitations. The content of these recitations is recorded in the Qur’an, the Islamic sacred book.
“The Qur’an was not meant to be a written recording of the inspired words of the prophets,” Lloyd-Moffett said, “but rather God speaking directly. It’s the direct word of God without any human intervention.”
When Muslims refer to “Allah,” they are not speaking of a god named Allah — Allah simply means “God” in Arabic, Lloyd-Moffett said. Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians also refer to God as “Allah.”
5. Islam is inherently violent
The Charlie Hebdo massacre is the most recent example of a series of widely reported terrorist attacks categorized as Islamic extremism, dating back to 9/11. The media’s portrayal of such events is often the only means by which Americans learn about Islam, which communicates a skewed image of the religion, Lloyd-Moffett said.
“People were introduced to Islam through an act of terrorism, particularly through the Taliban,” he said. “So when people were initially educated about Islam after 9/11, the Taliban became Islam. The Taliban was anti-women, anti-progress, anti-everything, so if that’s where you learn about Islam, that’s what you get. It’s like learning about Christianity from a white supremacist group in the South. If that’s your only experience, you’re going to have a pretty warped view of it.”
People who hold this view tend to use Muslim extremism and selectively violent passages from the Qur’an as evidence that Islam promotes violence, Lloyd-Moffett said. In reality, violent Muslim extremists account for a negligible fraction of the Muslim population, and the Qur’an’s violent texts are usually used out-of-context.
“There seems to be an assumption grounded in a general ignorance of Islam that these isolated texts you pull out must be the center,” he said. “But when you pull out similar texts from Christianity and Judaism, people just say, ‘That’s only applicable to the time and place.’”
Almost all major religions have some violent elements in their sacred texts, Lloyd-Moffett said.
“I don’t think there’s anything in the Islamic tradition that would advocate violence more than other traditions,” he said. “And historically speaking, Christians have killed many more than Muslims ever have. But we’re at an era of development in Islam where they’re really struggling to figure out how they fit into the world, and part of the reaction to those developments has been this fundamentalist extremist element.”
Kolkailah emphasized that in Islam, it is never okay to kill innocent people. However, the violent actions of a few Muslim extremists have come to represent Islam as a whole.
“Recently, after the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, as I walked around campus I could tell who’s been watching the news and scapegoating Muslims,” she said. “You can see in people’s eyes, the way they narrow their eyes at me and look at me as if I’m somehow personally responsible for what these crazy people did halfway across the world.”
Lloyd-Moffett said those who want to learn more about Islam should simply talk to a Muslim about the faith.
“Muslims are in a different place because Christians don’t need to explain their religion to anyone,” he said. “Muslims are in a place where since 9/11, they’ve spent a decade explaining their religion to everybody. And most of them are pretty good. They welcome it.”
A previous version of this story said the list was of four misconceptions, not five.