Writing in the margins: Misperceptions plague Muslim students

By Yusra Ali Tekbali
Arizona Daily Wildcat
September 8, 2005

With a name like Yusra Ali Tekbali, it wasn't easy fitting in with the Sally Johnsons and John Smiths. Role call on the first day of school always meant I would be repeating my name three times and forcing a smile in reply to the "Oh, that's interesting" mumbling of Mrs. Robertson.

Even here at the UA, with initiatives aimed at honoring diversity (such as the Millennium Projects, which seek to "Enhance Campus Climate for Academic Excellence") and representation of over 30 multicultural clubs and events like Cultural Awareness Week and the Language Fair, ignorance and fear towards religious and cultural minorities is commonplace.

Last week, for example, I agreed to take a survey on religion, conducted by one of the campus Christian groups. It started off easily enough.

"Do you believe in God?" Nod. "Do you believe humans are essentially good or evil?"

"Um, good?"

"What is your religion?"

"Islam. "

Ah, and how the tables turn. I immediately got the slow, once-over glance, where the eyes narrow as if trying to solve some sort of mystery (believe me, this guy wasn't checking me out), before being victim to several tedious questions about my country of origin (Hello, America!) and area of study (what does that matter?).

I must have responded correctly because the interviewer started to relax. But how would he have acted if, instead of my above answers, I responded with Afghanistan and nuclear engineering?

I'm almost certain that this surveyor wasn't trying to be offensive, but try on the unconventional shoes and pay particular attention to the label that reads, "Warning: Defensive Minority - Flammable If Exposed to Stereotypes" and you might get a better idea of what it felt like.

Before you start accusing me of being hypersensitive, let's back up. Like many of the six to eight million Muslims living in the Unites States, since Sept. 11, 2001, I've been stuck in this whirlwind of misinterpretation, racist behavior and unfair governmental actions.

Take the Patriot Act, for example. Aside from the fact that profiling is unconstitutional, it only serves to ostracize Muslims, targeting them on factors like religion or nationality, not behavior. Now, with random searches based solely on race being conducted in New York subway stations, it is hard not to feel like minorities are being discriminated against.

Laws like this, compiled with loads of negative media and two invasions of Muslim countries less than half of a presidential term apart, the unjust treatment of Guantanamo detainees and Iraqi prisoners and the continuing neglect of Palestinians, give me the right to be a little sensitive.

Harsher governmental policies not only affect minorities, but they are also affecting the UA and the greater Tucson community. International visas are now harder to obtain, severely limiting the number of international students, researchers and professors able to attend the UA.

Between 2001 and 2003, enrollment of students from the Middle East decreased by 54 percent. At Pima Community College, Middle Eastern students now make up six percent of the international student population, a number that was more than doubled before 2001. This absence of students costs Arizona's universities and colleges an average of $2 million to $3 million apiece in tuition revenues.

It's hard to tell how many of those students chose not to attend the UA on grounds that had more to do with personal safety or preference than legal documents. However, the government didn't exactly lay out the welcome mat when it deported hundreds of Muslim men after Sept. 11.

"Worlds Apart," a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, describes just 13 Muslim men out of the hundreds who were unfairly detained and forced to deport. The report states that the men, all of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent, were detained without evidence and denied access to council.

Many were kept in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, without the right to make phone calls or see visiting family members. The Justice Department Web site backs their claim, boasting about the deportation of more than 500 immigrants "linked to the September 11th investigation." America's hospitality continues when the prisoners are sent to Guantanamo, far from Geneva, where judicial review is no longer served and has instead been replaced with torture, abuse and desecration of holy books.

I am not an advocate for criminals but just for basic human rights. In the context of everything, small, everyday misconceptions or stereotypical jabs don't matter. But an agitated volcano is bound to erupt. On a diverse campus like the UA, it's important to recognize the different minorities represented, instead of assuming they're all part of the same pod.

Yusra Ali Tekbali is a Near Eastern Studies and journalism junior. If you would like to be featured in "Writing in the margins," please contact us at