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Fighting Islamophobia in Stevens Point

Religious Studies class connects Pointers with Muslim students in Egypt

By Scott Tappa
Growing up in Washington, D.C., Destany Johnson knew more than a little bit about Islam. While not a Muslim herself, one of Johnson’s cousins converted to the faith after getting married, and answered many of the questions Destany had about the religion. “I like to think I didn’t have any misconceptions about Muslims,” she says. “But I might have, because of how news is portrayed here.”
Challenging preconceptions is part of a unique exercise in professor Shanny Luft’s Religion 101 class at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. In it, Johnson and her classmates established a dialogue with Muslim college students at American University in Cairo, Egypt. Communicating with peers halfway around the world helped Luft’s students learn more about Islam, discover commonalities and apply their education in a real world setting.
The project originated about 10 years ago, when Brooke Comer, an English and journalism instructor at AUC, contacted Luft, then a graduate student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and proposed the idea of connecting students from Egypt and the U.S. in discussion groups. Though the two have never met, Comer and Luft have organized these exchanges multiple times throughout the past decade. Luft has worked at three universities in that time, and organized this exercise twice at UW-Stevens Point, most recently during the Fall 2014 semester.
“It’s been especially useful here since students from Central Wisconsin are unlikely to have had social interactions with Muslims,” Luft says. “And while they don’t like to admit to believing stereotypes, they often report at the end of the project that speaking with their Egyptian partners caused them to reconsider their preconceptions of Islam.”
Growing up in Milwaukee, Marissa Myers’ notions of Muslims were influenced by the events of September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks on the U.S. were portrayed as the act of Muslim extremists, and while Myers says she was able to remove herself from that mindset, “Islamophobia” was a topic of great concern to the Cairo students with whom she connected.
“They said it’s hard to live with that stigma of being portrayed as a terrorist,” says Myers, who made a strong connection with a student named Muhammad. “There was a lot to take away from it. Muhammad was talking about how news is portrayed in America, and how what we see is totally different from what they see.”
Says Luft: “I had a UW-Stevens Point student who did this project five years ago. He had come back from Iraq, where he had extensive interactions with Muslims. When he completed the project, he wrote his final reflection about how the experience changed his perceptions of Islam and Muslims.
“These cross-cultural dialogues were originally a way for students to learn about Islam, and they have done that. But in reading my students’ reflections, I’ve learned that students come to discover something about themselves through these dialogues.”

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