Muslim UCF students combat hate with peace
A dirty look, a glare, people muttering under their breath. Imagine all of this happening simply because you're Muslim or you're wearing a hijab.
According to the Pew Research Center, there are 1.6 billion Muslim citizens around the world, which makes up 23 percent of the world's population. Additionally, 13.7 percent of all religious-based hate crimes in 2013 were motivated by anti-Muslim bias, according to the FBI's hate crime statistics.
That bias has hit close to home for some UCF students.
For Amirah Mathin, a sophomore biomedical sciences major, the discrimination hit while she was helping a man involved in a vehicle collision during her time as an EMT. As she was extracting the man from the vehicle, he asked not to be touched by her and threw in a racial slur or two about her hijab, or head scarf.
Mathin, raised Muslim, actually went to a Catholic high school because of its reputation, and when she began to wear her hijab three years ago, no one really said anything negative toward her.
The harassment doesn't stop at words for some, however. For one individual, Katelyn Picard, a recent UCF alumna, it almost became physical when she and four other women wearing hijabs were stalked on campus.
After leaving the gym late one night with friends, a van full of men — who had shouted at them earlier — began following them from parking lot to parking lot. The fear-stricken women, with 911 at the ready, walked around the building to try and trick the men into thinking they were leaving before making a mad dash to their car and leaving as quickly as possible.
"I was just baffled because it was on the UCF campus," Picard said. "I would expect this where I live [in Kissimmee], not here."
But that's not all the harassment she has endured. Picard, who converted to Islam three years ago, has been glared at, made fun of and even gotten into an argument with a political candidate at a festival.
After trying to correct the political candidate for using the word "jihad" incorrectly — a word referring to the struggle endured by Muslims for their religion — her efforts were met with lecturing and verbal abuse.
"He was being so rude to me that his assistant came over to me and tried to make me feel better," she said. "Everyone else was watching. It felt so degrading, and when I was walking back to the car, I was crying."
For Picard, these incidents aren't isolated to strangers or politicians. She noticed the act of Islamophobia at a bonfire with friends, where one person made an Islamophobic comment. Picard then decided to open up about being Muslim.
"I realized I wasn't offended because the person I'm engaged to is Muslim or because my friends are Muslim," Picard said. "I was offended on a personal level."
As a humanities major, she has studied Middle Eastern religion in detail and had begun doing her own research, following certain practices.
But resoundingly, those who have been victims of Islamophobia have said not to respond with negativity in return, but with understanding and education.
"The key to combating instances of hate is with peace," Mathin said. "The best thing we can do is show them how we're not like that."
As for why Islamophobia seems to crop up — which many have said is typically after times of crises, such as as the massacre in Paris — many found the media to blame.
"The media is sneaky about it," said Yusuf Yenikomsu, a senior business management major. "They pick and choose what stories to post. They're not indirectly saying Muslims are bad, but from what they're publishing it gives that perception to people who are watching."
The problem this creates, Mathin said, is that it equates all Muslims with those who are violent and belong to extremist groups.
"As plain Muslims, we are always apologizing and defending [ourselves], when these people aren't even doing anything Islamic ... " Mathin said. "I feel like we're always apologizing. But what we're doing when we apologize is taking responsibility."
Nafila Shaikh, another student and friend of Mathin, echoed those sentiments.
"How much are we going to defend ourselves? I'd rather show what we are than what we're not. I'd rather say we stand for peace," said Shaikh, a junior biology major and secretary of the Muslim Student Association.
Adam Rhodes is the Entertainment Editor at the Central Florida Future. Follow him on Twitter at @byadamrhodes or email him at AdamR@CentralFloridaFuture.com.