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Although they encounter the occasional well-meaning cultural gaffe, BU Medical Campus Muslims say they feel accepted and embraced at BU, and face no professional bias or barriers. Social media, however, is another matter. Several of the Muslims at a diversity forum on December 15, among them School of Medicine, School of Dental Medicine, and Boston Medical Center faculty and residents, said they have been dismayed by anti-Muslim Facebook posts shared by colleagues they consider friends and who show them nothing but respect.
This cultural blind spot, and the need for what one audience member called “religious literacy,” was a recurring theme at the evening panel discussion, titled Muslim at BUMC: A Conversation. The event was sponsored by the MED Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, which has held similar discussions focusing on challenges faced by African Americans, Hispanics, and Jews working on the Medical Campus. “The goal,” said Rafael Ortega, associate dean for diversity and multicultural affairs and a MED professor of anesthesiology, was “to have a candid, enlightening dialogue on the current challenges and successes of Muslims at our institutions.”
Ortega moderated the panel, comprising Ali Guermazi, a MED professor of radiology, who immigrated from Tunisia, Scharukh Jalisi, a MED associate professor of otolaryngology, who immigrated from Pakistan, Boston Medical Center anesthesiology resident Sadiya Shamim, who was born in Saudi Arabia, and Egyptian-born Amr Aly (SDM’17), who grew up in New Jersey and founded the Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine’s Muslim Student Association. All the panelists agreed that the Medical Campus as a whole is not biased toward them and is quick to accommodate Muslim faculty, student, and staff needs with prayer rooms and a growing sophistication about the holy month of Ramadan. “We will not starve to death,” joked BMC nurse Jamina Hassan, a Muslim.
The discussion came in the wake of the recent high-profile, deadly terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., that have created anti-Muslim backlash. But Ortega asked the 70-or-so gathered at the Keefer Auditorium to focus on what goes on at BU. “We shouldn’t disregard current events, but the question here is, what can we do here on the Medical Campus to better understand Muslims?”
“Ask any questions you’ve been holding back,” said Aly, helping to set a relaxed, open tone to the hour, which included questions and comments from audience members at the end. Panelists shared facts that they think seem to escape even the most educated non-Muslim Americans. “Not all Muslims speak Arabic,” said Jalisi. “Not all Muslims are Arab, and not all Arabs are Muslim.” Guermazi, who is married to a Berber—a Muslim, but not an Arab—added, “There are Arab Christians and Arab Jews.”
Guermazi, whose family remains in Tunisia, spoke of what the pervasively demonized word “jihad” means to him: “Every day you watch TV and people say jihad. But I do jihad every day. What we call jihad is fighting against yourself—to not do something wrong. Jihad is not to go out and do harm to other people. This is really something I want to explain. Since I was young, my father used to tell me, you have to behave. That is jihad.”
“I personally have never felt held back, or had any problems here,” Jalisi said, and that he hopes the medical school will receive more Muslim applicants in the future. “We have prayer areas on both campuses, and my colleagues have been great.” As the media fan the flames of Islamophobia, though, “you do find that folks you may be working with, who know and like you, may go along” with anti-Islamic social media statements. That stings, he said, especially “when you’ve spent a lot of time and commitment and those comments happen.” Samim shared a story about an Islamophobic Facebook post by a colleague she considers a good friend, someone who has always been respectful of her.
Guermazi, who did most of his medical studies in Europe, commended BU for its sensitivity and openness. “I remember when I told my chair, a Muslim, that we have to go somewhere off campus to pray, he said no, we can pray here.” Guermazi said he’d always dreamed of practicing his faith without hiding. “In Europe you do things hiding. And maybe most of the problems they have is because of that,” he said. Jalisi, who has lived in three countries, concurred, saying that he’d promised his father he would be a professor one day, but in France, where he trained, that wasn’t possible. “There are problems, but in terms of opportunities for Muslims, the United States is the best,” he said. “I will add, maybe I’m scared outside today, especially for my family, but inside the University, I feel absolutely safe.”
Guermazi echoed that sentiment. But he, too, said that “when it comes to someone you know well posting something negative on Facebook, it hurts very much. I find that in my department, maybe because I’m chief, or because I’m very open, my residents talk to me, they ask, what do you think about this? I have the chance to explain things in a very friendly way, because I do think people have the right, when they see what’s going on in the world right now, to ask these questions. It’s so much better when they do it face-to-face: educated people can talk in a friendly way.”
“I might feel some negative sentiments in the public, but not at work,” said Shamim, who also studied in Europe. “At work it’s social media or a blanket statement and not personal.” In response to a question about inaccurate depictions of Muslim women, she noted that “one of the big stereotypes is that we are forbidden from working, and that is absolutely not true. I may be the only Muslim female in the OR, but if you go to the dental school, internal medicine, pediatrics, there are many. But remember, there are only seven million Muslims in America.”
When it comes to the daily news coverage of extremism in the name of Islam, Aly said, “I’m just as concerned as everyone in the crowd. I pray after each shooting that the name doesn’t end up being Muslim. My faith preaches peace, but that’s beside the point. I know a lot of people are getting their information” from biased media outlets. “What we can do to combat that is have more discussions like these,” he said. Jalisi reminded the audience that “there is extremism out there and we have to accept that fact, but most of its victims have actually been Muslims. Over 500,000 Pakistani Muslims have been killed in extremists attacks, most recently children, and there’s little media coverage of this in the United States.
“I love America,” he said. “I’m an American first, but suddenly to be weighed on the same scale as these crazy lunatics, to suddenly come under this magnifying glass, that to me is nutty.”
A non-Muslim professor of pediatrics in the audience said, “We should be thinking about cultural competence for everyone. We need to tweet, to Facebook, and we should be addressing anxiety in everybody.” Commenters from the audience, as well as Ortega and the panelists, agreed strongly that when bigotry does raise its head, the answer is to combat ignorance or misinformation with the facts. The last person to speak personified the dilemmas a Muslim medical professional is likely to face. Ala’a El-Shaar (MED’15), a Syrian immigrant in hijab, was recently told by a neurology patient, “You remind me of that California woman in the news.”
“Wearing hijab, it’s a little easier to be a target,” El-Shaar said. “It’s worth everyone’s while to pass along what you’ve learned here today.”