Breaking the Course Comfort Zone

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It can be so easy to see the world in black and white terms: good and bad, wrong and right, us and them. Once we make up our minds about how to understand something, it can be hard to change our way of thinking

I, like most current Boston College students, grew up in post-Sept. 11 America. From a young age, we were bombarded with media messages that surrounded Islam with uncertainty and anxiety. The religion became heavily associated with the Sept. 11 attacks and with terrorism itself.

Briefly, I learned about another Islam in middle school. It had five pillars of faith, which meant Muslims had to pray at certain times every day to Allah, fast during Ramadan, give to the poor, and take a trip to a city in Saudi Arabia called Mecca. The religion that my public school showed me was strange and different from my own.

Even during the beginning of my college career, this was the extent of my understanding. All I knew of Islam came from a quick world religions unit in school and the mentions of terrorist attacks in the mainstream media. Given the current state of our world, where terrorist attacks pop up weekly on the news, I felt unsure of what to make of the violence. What link does this violence actually have to Islam? Is the religion an oppressive one at its core? I wanted to believe that the answer was no on both accounts, but the truth is that I knew so little, and I could not form an opinion with any kind of knowledgeable basis.

When I saw the course “Women and Gender in Islam” as I planned my spring schedule last semester, I decided that now was the time to take it. Now was the time to educate myself. My decision to take advantage of this course was one of the best decisions I have made yet during my time at BC.

Natana Delong-Bas, an assistant professor of the practice in the theology department, I found out, is truly an expert in her field, not just in the U.S., but all over the world. The past few months in her class have not only deepened my understanding of this religion, but have shown me just how much of the world I know so little about. Nearly 25 percent of the world practices Islam, and its major adherents range from Malaysian to Moroccan. The course has provided me with scriptural background to enhance my understanding of Islam, and has clarified touchy subjects like Sharia Law and a woman’s choice in wearing the veil.

The media often uses Qur’anic verses out of context and images of burka-clad women to shock viewers, creating a culture of fear and misunderstanding. Yet, I’ve learned that, once looked at in full—a whole picture rather than the fragments that we get of Islam in our everyday lives—it becomes clear that what most Americans think they know about Islam is far from reality. We are often manipulated into believing ideas that are exaggerated and negatively simplified, when the truth itself is too complex and multifaceted to squeeze into any five-minute news segment.

It is so easy to take what we see and hear as the truth, allow it to take root, and grow in our minds until it becomes a fully formed opinion or belief. These are the seeds of prejudice, the beginnings of immigration bans.

As BC students, we are so fortunate to have access to professors in every area of study. These men and women have made it their life’s work to research, learn, and to share their valuable knowledge with students like us. It is so important to deepen our understandings of the things we don’t have a clear, whole picture of, so that we can form our own opinions, media biases aside.

Watching the news is often not enough. In fact, the news can grow into the source of our ill-formed opinions. To research and seek out the truth is often the only way to find it. We are fortunate to have access to a diversity of courses that are interesting and important.

Within the Islamic Civilization and Societies or Near Eastern Languages and Cultures programs, we have the opportunity to learn about societies and cultures that students are rarely exposed to in high school or in most tracks of college education. For interesting and enlightening courses, other interdisciplinary departments like African and African Diaspora Studies or Slavic and Eastern Languages and Literatures give important insight into cultures and societies we could not likely learn about otherwise. The world is much bigger than our Western and largely Christian view of it makes it seem. The Jesuit philosophy of educating the whole person challenges us to expand our horizons and minds to make us more empathetic global citizens.

Everybody has areas of uncertainty, where they are unsure what to call fact and fiction. For me, it was Islam, but for others it may be racial inequality in urban areas, styles of government other than democracy, or practices of other religions and cultures, to name a few. No one has all the answers to the questions we face, but the worst place to look is probably the mainstream American media. We owe it to ourselves and to the world to take advantage of our educational opportunities to the fullest.

As you select courses for next fall, look for a class that focuses on something you don’t understand and want to know more about. It doesn’t have to be in your major, it doesn’t even have to fulfill a core requirement. Learning about what both confuses and interests you is enough. Better yet, take a class that challenges your values and beliefs. We are still so young. Now, more than ever, is the time to push ourselves to think differently.

Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor

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