\”Arab.\” \”Middle Eastern.\” \”Osama Bin Laden.\”
These are just a few student responses to what could have been a question about things related to the Middle East. Instead, they were definitions students gave for the word \”terrorist.\”
Vikram Singh was assaulted this year on campus by two other male students who kicked him repeatedly and spit on him while screaming, \”Al-Qaeda.\” When the police arrived, none of the witnesses claimed to have seen anything. No charges have been made against Singh\’s assaulter. [singh]
\”How come a white male school-shooter is just crazy, but a Muslim who kills is a terrorist?\” the electrical engineering junior asked students at a Sikh and Muslim awareness program called Mistaken Identity. Is America\’s post-9/11 view of the Middle East still tainted?
For many people, Iraq has come to embody all the perceptions Americans hold about the region. To help familiarize students and open them up to other cultures during International Education Week, the College of Communication Arts and Sciences launched its first annual International Film Festival, with its focus on the Middle East. The festival, along with people like Singh who have been involved and dedicated to opening American minds to cultures in the Middle East, are recent efforts to promote acceptance.
By attempting to stop discrimination through educating communities about Sikhs, Muslims and the Middle East, MSU has taken at least a few steps in the right direction. Twenty-one films were shown during the International Film Festival from Nov. 12 – Nov. 18, and the selection represented a diverse cross-section of the often misunderstood region. As dean of the college, Charles T. Salmon knows the role the media plays in shaping knowledge about this region of the world. “The festival is partly important from a communications perspective — this is a region that dominates the news and it’s the subject of a lot of debate,” he said.
In the spring of 2006, Elizabeth Nugent, a student at Georgetown University, conducted a survey of students called \”American Perceptions and Misperceptions of the Middle East: a Case Study,\” in order to gauge their understanding of the people as well as the region. She asked students to define the difference between an Arab and a Muslim, to define the underlying issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict and to describe the status of women among other things. The students were divided into two groups: those that were familiar with the Middle East and those that were not. She found the more students were familiar with the region, the more they were uncomfortable with stereotyping. Negative attitudes toward Sikhs, Muslims and Middle Easterners have seemed to stem largely from a lack of knowledge of the cultures.
“My mom and I were scared for my dad after 9/11 because his turban makes him an easy target,” said Sikh panel member and Mistaken Identity coordinator Harlori Tokhie. While it is the turban of the Sikh man that sets him apart, it is the veil of the Muslim woman that sets her apart.
“People think I’m Muslim which in their minds means I’m a terrorist; truth is, I’m neither,” said Singh, who identifies himself as a Sikh. The principle belief in Sikhism, the fifth-largest organized religion in the world, is faith in one God. Most Sikhs hail from India, but there are more than 23 million people practicing across the world.
Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia were just a few of the countries that the featured films were set in during the festival. Salmon said input was sought from a variety of sources, including (but not limited to) the Muslim Students Association (MSA), the African Studies Center, the Asian Studies Center and the Jewish Studies Program. “We wanted a broad range of perspectives so as to give a diverse picture of the region,” he said. The films ranged from love stories to dramas to musings on how politics affect everyday life.
In A New Day in Old Sana’a, the first feature film made in Yemen, a photographer named Tariq, who comes from a noble family, is expected to follow through with an arranged marriage. When he falls in love with an orphan from the lower class, he is faced with a life-altering dilemma. Should he go through with his obligation to his family, or should he follow his heart?
Salmon said he feels that it’s important not to see the Middle East in monolithic terms. “Some of the goals are to have people watch the films and forget the countries [that] they’re set in,” he said. [film]
Another film, called Bab-el-Oued City, was set in this district of Algiers, Algeria, in 1989, one year after the riots of 1988. The film, made in 1993, highlighted the tension between a radical element in the neighborhood and people who were just trying to live in everyday Algeria. The main character, Boualem, stole one of the rooftop speakers that had been broadcasting a radical message throughout the city, sparking a quest from the leader of the fundamentalists to find the responsible party. After the movie, journalism professor Geri Alumit Zeldes, who studies cross-cultural media depictions with a focus on television news, led an audience discussion.
She said Algeria experienced a rise in Islamic fundamentalism in the 1990s. For Zeldes, and most of the viewers, it was a first-hand look into the climate and culture of Algeria during this time, although the film was categorized as being part fact and part fiction. When people think of the Middle East, they don\’t think of the surrounding countries that face many of the same conflicts, both politically and religiously.
“When we think of Islamic fundamentalism, I usually think of Iran or Iraq, or various other countries, but not Algeria,” Zeldes said. Travel, in addition to film, can be an eye-opener as well. Morocco, a country that shares a border with Algeria, proved to be the exact opposite of what Zeldes expected prior to her travel there. “I’ve been to Morocco before and my impression beforehand was that it was going to be like the Wild Wild West, it was going to be animals everywhere, but that was not the case. It’s a developed country, with developed systems, etc.,” she said.
The media has had a lot of control over our perceptions of the world, and in some ways it can be limited. Alternative sources, such as the film festival, may tell sides of stories we have never heard before. “Our experience with other countries is rather limited; people often rely on second hand information, not day-to-day experiences. These films give a glimpse into that,” Salmon said.
The MSA, just one contributor to the event, has also been taking other steps to raise awareness and end discrimination. “MSA decided to get involved because this is a first annual event, the first of many and the focus was the Middle East. Most countries in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, have Muslim majorities. So, we wanted to have a say in the discussions that went on afterward,” Yusuf Begg, an economics senior and political chair for the MSA, said. “All the films were international, foreign films, so it was just a different way of looking at the Middle East.” On the subject of the media, he said, “You’ll have a better idea of what’s going on in the countries if you watch a movie instead of just watching the news or other publications – it’ll be easier for it to soak in.”
The MSA also played a large part in the Mistaken Identity program. “Through various diversity programs and activities I think we can increase awareness and lessen discrimination. Although some professors have approached us and offered a helping hand, more work must be done,\” said MSA President Tammam Alwan. “We set a more welcoming and accommodating environment for Muslim students. We seek to get rid of stereotypes and generalizations, which have developed due to ignorance,” said Alwan. The lack of knowledge about Muslims can be seen rather frequently in the news throughout the country.
Perhaps as a result, there have been many cases involving religious and racial discrimination since 9/11. “Muslims are definitely singled out more than any other group right now,\” Begg said. \”The stereotype that people tend to have is that Arabs are involved in terrorism just because of the way we look. You can see that right now in the news. In Minneapolis, there were five religious scholars that were singled out on an airplane because they were praying in the terminal lobby. A lot of people thought they were going to blow up the airplane just because they were praying, even though they had nothing on them.”
Such discrimination should not be taken lightly, yet even MSU has overlooked the intensity of some issues. After his attack, Singh received what looked like a mass e-mail in response to the letter he wrote to President Lou Anna K. Simon, informing her of the discrimination happening on campus.
“When he e-mailed the president and got a less-than-appropriate response, it shows that this is not one of the university\’s priorities. All students are equal and deserve the same amount of attention in these types of situations,” said psychology junior Simran Gill, who is also a Racial Ethnic Student Aide and a Mistaken Identity coordinator.
Programs such as the International Film Festival and Mistaken Identity are actively educating the MSU community about other cultures and helping put an end to stereotyping and discrimination. While there is still a long way to go in reaching positive attitudes and equality, these activities are a start. The MSA plans to hold a larger-scale program about the Middle East in April.
“I just hope Mistaken Identity…helps spread awareness that just because people are dark-skinned and wear turbans, it does not make them a terrorist by default,” Gill said.

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