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Education Trumps Stereotypes: A Cleveland Student’s Perspectives On Islam

by Maria Pineda

For centuries, Christians have stereotyped Muslims and I, for most of my 17 years, have stereotyped them too, especially after 9/11. I am a senior of Saint Martin De Porres High School and I grew up with Islamophobia, fear of people who practice Islam.  But this year I was assigned a capstone project that I focused on Muslim life in America, because I was curious about this group that frightened me. I had believed some of the most heinous stereotypes: that Muslim men beat their wives and that all Muslims were dangerous. To me, the headscarves worn by some Islamic women looked suspicious.

A year of research upended my attitudes about Islam. Now, I am offended when someone speaks ignorantly about it.  During a recent Spanish class, my teacher went over some history of Spain, noting that Muslims controlled the territory we now call Spain from 771 to 1130, and were part of a religiously mixed culture on the Iberian Peninsula for centuries. But my teacher also stated that Muslims worship Muhammad, which irritated me because I knew Muslims worship only Allah, and Muhammad is their prophet. I immediately raised my hand and told my teacher what I knew was right. To his credit, he acknowledged his mistake. I found that setting the record straight was as important to me as it would have been had my own faith been mischaracterized.

As part of my research, I interviewed Julia Shearson, a Muslim convert and executive director of the Cleveland chapter of Council on American-Islamic Relations.  She taught me a good deal about Islam, carefully explaining the meaning of Jihad, Sharia Law, and the purpose of the head scarf that some Muslim women wear.  Shearson confided that people sometimes fear her when they glimpse her headscarf.  A stranger once jumped away from her as she exited an elevator.  That left me speechless—I have rarely met a nicer person, but such incidents show how deep our stereotypes can be.

I have become a passionate ally of the religion and I intend to continue to defend it.  When a newscaster reporting on ISIS refers to its members as “Jihadists,” I get angry—Jihad refers to the deep struggle of life. I had the same reaction when I heard about people in Nashville protesting against the construction of a mosque, assuming its members would plot against America and try to substitute Sharia Law for the U.S. Constitution. Discrimination like this is so offensive to all law-abiding followers of Islam.

Now I know many American Muslims struggle in our country to find a job or housing. Women who wear scarves to respect their modesty have lost opportunities and faced prejudice because of their faith. This is such an unnecessary sacrifice in 2015.

I am grateful to have researched the stereotyping of Muslims in America, and in my own mind. I hope to contribute to a cycle of enlightenment and liberation so the misconceptions and discrimination against Muslims will diminish over my lifetime, along with other prejudices in our communities.

Maria Pineda is a senior at Saint Martin de Porres High School.

  • Pam Jaffe

    April 24, 2015

    What a beautiful and heartfelt essay. Your openness to learning about and embracing other religions and cultures is a wonderful quality!

  • Lisa Nielson

    April 24, 2015

    Absolutely beautiful, Maria! I applaud you for your honesty, courage and thoughtfulness, and am deeply grateful for your work.

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