Muslim teens seek acceptance, understanding

By Michael Reed

Valley Voices staff writer

Saba Munir wants others to know that she is a typical teenager.

"I hang out with my friends, go to the movies, things like that," said the 17-year-old senior from Girls Preparatory School. "We're not any different than any other teenager."

Munir said that she and some of her friends, who are Muslim, wish stereotyping would end.

She's among several Muslin teens voicing concerns over anti-Muslim sentiments they believe are rising as controversies surrounding Islam capture national attention.

Unsa Shafi, 16, a junior at GPS, said that misconceptions about her faith began with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"It's like people have taken the extreme Muslims as a representation of all Muslims in America," she said. "Yet Muslims in America wouldn't even consider the terrorists true Muslims because of what they did.

"You can't judge a whole religion because of a few people."

Almost a decade after Sept. 11, a Pew Research Center poll released in August found that 30 percent of Americans hold a favorable view toward Islam, while 35 percent believe the religion promotes violence.

While most of the Chattanooga teens interviewed said they felt insulated from the overt bias demonstrated in other parts of the country, life here is not without incident.

Even when derogatory comments are made in jest, they still sting, Shafi said.

"Once a girl was going around saying, 'Hey, terrorist,' like she was joking, but I was like, 'Wait ... that's not funny,'" she said. "I don't want to be dubbed a terrorist just because I am a Muslim."

Rania Zeinedlin, 17, a senior at Soddy-Daisy High School, said that others are shocked when they find out she's not Christian and try to convert her.

"They're like 'Oh, you're going to hell,'" Zeinedlin said. "Most people don't realize we believe in the same God as Christians."

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga freshman Yasmeen Abdulazeez, 17, was told by a professor that he would lower her grade when she asked to miss class for a religious holiday. She dropped the class instead.

Donning the hijab, the traditional headscarf worn by some Muslim women, is a visible, recognizable sign of the faith, but some teens said wearing one can attract unwanted scrutiny.

Shafi said that after her mother was hassled by a group of teens at a local gas station for wearing the hijab, it became her responsibility to fill up the gas tank for a while.

"That scares me a little bit because I've already been called a terrorist and I'm not even wearing a headscarf yet," said Shafi, who plans to wear the headscarf in college.

Abdulazeez, who has worn the head covering since she was a child, said she has experienced many problems as a result. A referee during a volleyball tournament refused to allow her to play because of her headscarf.

Misconceptions about Islam aren't limited to the classroom.

During a campaign stop in Chattanooga in July, Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey made national headlines by suggesting that Islam might be a cult instead of a religion. Ramsey did not respond to repeated requests for comments for this report.

Ramsey's statements helped perpetuate negative perception of Muslims, Munir said.

"He definitely sent the wrong message out," Munir said. "It's because of people like him that there is so much misinterpretation."

Chattanooga's Muslim teens said they feel a responsibility to help dispel the negative stereotypes of their faith.

Before graduating from Red Bank High School, Abdulazeez said some of the students would harass her. She said she saw that as an opportunity to dispel misconceptions about her faith.

"I'm not afraid to go straight toward them and ask them, 'Do you really know what Islam is?' " Abdulazeez said. "There's this misconception that Islam is a violent religion. Muslims are actually peaceful."

Amin Gharad, president of Muslim Youth of North America, said the biggest misconception American Muslim teens deal with is the perception of an "us vs. them" mentality.

Local Muslim teens said they wish people would focus on what makes them the same rather than what sets them apart.

"Really, all we want is to be your friends and be treated like everyone else," Shafi said. "We have morals like you have morals. Just because we find them in a different book doesn't make us any different."

Michael Reed is a student at Center for Creative Arts.