Daily Southtown: Muslim students learn to fight stereotypes

Standing in front of Muslim high school students, Ahmed Rehab asked the girls at Universal School in Bridgeview what non-Muslims might think when they see them at the shopping mall in their hijabs, or headscarves.

“Terrorists, crazy, oppressed,” the students shouted.

“Where did they get those stereotypes?” he asked.

It’s human nature to be afraid of what you don’t understand, and that fear and misunderstanding can lead to stereotypes, he said.

“I know a … stereotype,” Rehab said. “(A woman who wears a hijab) is more likely to be a good student, likely to be in college and one of the most committed students. She’s likely not to drink, use drugs or steal your credit card and use it.

“She’s more likely to be good to her parents and siblings and neighbors. It’s a positive one if only people knew. How are they going to know if you don’t show yourself?”

Rehab and Yaser Tabbara, CAIR’s national director of development, led a leadership training seminar Wednesday to help students define themselves as Muslim Americans and fight stereotypes. The two men developed the Muslim Youth Leadership Symposium, which they hope to launch nationwide.

As part of the workshop, students develop social service projects rooted in the values of Islam to help promote a positive image.

“Each and every one of them are inspired to serve the community and grow as individuals and leaders of tomorrow,” Assistant Principal Hanan Abdallah said.

The projects ran the gamut: visiting hospitals and nursing homes, working with orphans, making documentaries about Muslim life, developing a pen pal program with students in other schools.

The students said they felt inspired and more informed after the workshop.

“It helps us to revolutionize what is going on,” said Tasmiha Khan, 17, a senior from Bridgeview. “After (the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks), there were a lot of barriers. It has toned down a little, but this will help us to bridge the gap.”

Her classmate Nadia Ahmed said a friend who wears a hijab was asked if she was a nun. Other hijab-wearing women have had their scarves pulled off, she said.

“We have to fix that, by making people aware of who we are,” she said.

Amin Elsaeed, 17, a senior from Chicago Ridge, said he and his classmates have their work cut out for them.

“As youth, we have a huge role in defining how America works,” he said. “If we want to be leaders, we have to push away the negative stereotypes.”

Sophomore Zaid Zayad, of Hickory Hills, said education is the key to changing the image of Muslim Americans.

Rehab and Tabbara also told the students that as Muslims, they may have problems with American foreign policy in the Middle East, but as Americans, they have the freedom of speech to protest.

Zaineb Abdulla, a junior from Chicago’s near West Side, said she has struggled with the idea of being a Muslim American as someone whose family comes from Iraq.

“I think about this issue all the time,” the 15-year-old said. “They reminded me of something I’d forgotten: I don’t have to support (President George Bush and his policies). ”

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