Story | Soroush Saleh, she/her, Contributing Writer
Photo | Alex McCarthy from Unsplash
Given the level of diversity in our community, we’ve probably all encountered friendly debate or the occasional awkward question from someone attempting to understand something they don’t know about. Sometimes, though, people cross the line with strangely personal questions, or even a few ill-placed insults if their speech is garbled with drink or if they harbor a bias against you. I doubt that’s new for any of us. It gets worse when people ask you to defend your own beliefs in order to convince themselves that you’re wrong.
Before I tell you a story, I wish to mention this caveat. Yes, I am Muslim. Yes, I have studied my own religion and come to my own understanding, partially guided by authority figures in my life. If your beliefs conflict with mine, I promise I’m not assuming my interpretation is correct. I am simply giving the specifics of my belief system for illustrative purposes.
A few weeks after I’d graduated from high school, I got a call from an old friend. He went to a different school and still had classes to attend to fulfil graduation requirements. After some small talk, he asked me an odd question: “How many pillars of Islam are there?”
His school, a Christian school, requires students to take a World Religions course. I knew this, but hadn’t yet associated it with this strange query.
Most Muslims know the answer immediately, and I’m no exception. “Five, why do you ask?” I expected him to mention a Model United Nations related argument, but his answer took me by surprise. “My teacher says there are six. Are you sure?” I was shocked. “Positive. Your teacher says that? What’s his source?” He chuckled. “My teacher’s reading from the Pocketbook of Religions, which says that the sixth pillar is jihad.”
‘Jihad’ is an Arabic word that refers to a struggle for a good or praiseworthy cause. However, most people assume it directly refers to religious war. I guess the Pocketbook assumed it meant the latter.
I still tried to assume the best. “Perhaps he meant Jihad al-Akbar, the struggle against yourself to stop or limit sinful inclinations. It’s not a pillar, but it’s important,” I said. My friend sighed. “I’ll ask. Hold on.” He promptly dashed my hopes. “He doesn’t think so. He got mad at me for using class time to do my own research.”
Anger was rising in me, but I couldn’t ask any more questions because he had to return to class. He left me with the promise of a call to explain everything.
He called again after half an hour and invited some of his classmates. Together, they regaled me with stories of the other religions they’d studied. They told me tales of incorrect information about Judaism and Hinduism as well, but mostly about Islam. As many of them were Christian or atheist, their information came from Google. Their efforts to clarify the information in the class were mostly ignored or punished.
They all asked me to speak to their teacher, but I refused. Who was I to start questioning a teacher, especially one I didn’t know? I told them to call me again if there was any more trouble. I thought that was the end of it. Oh, how wrong I was. The next day, I got an email from my friend, containing only an attached presentation and a subject line that read “enjoy this travesty.”
Unsure of what to expect, I opened the attachment. The title of the presentation was “Violence in Islam.” Below it were two photos, one of hadith books and one of an extremist group. Incredulous, I scrolled down and read every slide of the presentation. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say that for every sentence containing correct information, there were three incorrect or incomplete ones.
I saw red. I couldn’t let this continue. I decided to call my friend and listen in on his class. If his teacher really taught that rubbish to them, I would try to step in.
The teacher began the class by sharing two articles, one about a Christian who decided to convert to Islam and become an extremist, and another about a Muslim who had decided to become a Christian. Both articles sang praises of Christianity and did not hold back with their criticism of Islam. While they were perfectly entitled to do so, the cherry-picking of stories showed a distorted picture of what Islam is. There is a reason why almost 2 billion people worldwide are Muslims.
Throughout the teacher’s presentation, I was telling my friend everything I could think of as evidence against what was being taught: historical accounts, the biases of certain translators, and interpretations of the quotes, to name a few.
I was caught up in the moment, enjoying the teacher’s momentary sputtering whenever I spoke through my friend. Right before his class ended, I had an epiphany. I could end this straight at the source by simply confronting his teacher. I asked my friend for the Zoom link and waited.
When he let me in, the teacher treated me courteously. Even after I mentioned I was Muslim and that I’d heard every word of his presentation, he did not seem alarmed nor guilty. He asked me if he’d done a good job, apparently in complete earnest.
I cannot tell you how angry I got. I was hanging on to my calm demeanor by a thread. I had to take several seconds to calm down by reminding myself that I had to stay composed in order to explain clearly. With all the patience I could muster, I informed him that his presentation contained false and incomplete information. Knitting his eyebrows together, he asked me which part. For the next twenty minutes, I explained all the lacking areas and provided him with places he could look for verification and more information. Surprisingly, he absorbed it and, when I had finished, he apologized.
Then, he asked why I wanted to correct something that wouldn’t affect me. My response was simple. It had affected me. Not his teaching, per se, but the principle behind it. By teaching that Muslims are inherently violent, he was propagating the idea that we are lesser humans or even savages. That creates fear, creates hatred—you can’t ignore the product of that. Discrimination. Hate crimes. Someone’s teaching had ended up hurting and killing students at my old school and people in my religious community back home. What good reason is there for furthering that?
He interrupted me then, saying that he was teaching in a Christian school and that the school had regulations. I almost scoffed. I’m no expert in Christianity, but I’m fairly sure that they preach that everyone is equal in the eyes of the Lord. Before I left the meeting, I told him that my intention was not to confront or undermine him as a teacher, although if I’m being honest, a little part of me wanted that. Instead, I simply wanted him to exercise caution in teaching religions that are not his own.
That was the end, or so I thought. Yet, a day later, my friend forwarded me an aggressive email he’d received from that teacher. Here’s what he said: “Your friend mentioned [something] in our conversation yesterday. I did some research and just wanted to let you know that her statement was incorrect.” He went on to defend the information in his presentation and asked what I thought. He even implied that my beliefs were misguided.
I wrote a response, providing evidence of my own and questioning the validity of the websites he’d attached. I even translated part of the Quran to defend what I’d said. After it was sent, we let it go.
Many students in the class reached out to me and thanked me for being brave. Honestly, I don’t think I was. I can’t tell you how much crippling self-doubt and anxiety I experienced throughout this ordeal. I only did what I did because I was angry and because he was no real threat to me—after all, he didn’t control my grades. However, not every situation is like that.
We’ve arrived at the end of my story. I’m not telling you this because I expect praise for what I did. In fact, I don’t think I handled it very well: I put my friend at risk by making him the go-between. The curriculum hasn’t changed, although I hear from younger students that the teacher is now a lot more careful about what he says. There was only one real advantage to what I did: Nobody in my friend’s class believes the misinformation they had to learn.
Word spreads fast, so many subsequent students in that school also know not to believe everything they hear in that class without sufficient evidence. If this incident hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be telling you this story.
We should all try to correct as much misinformation as possible. The problem lies in when you’re asked to speak for others or when your beliefs aren’t respected. We’ve all definitely had experiences like that. Some of us (including me) have had too many to count. Here are a few pointers for the next time you correct someone.
(Disclaimer: I’m not suggesting you take these tips and go out into the world looking for people to fight. Use these when you need to, at your own risk.)
- Stay calm. Nothing good comes from raised voices. It could create more problems. If you need to take a few deep breaths or step away for a while, do it.
- Try not to make claims that you’re not 100% sure about. We often get carried away and say things that we’re not sure about. However, there’s a chance that the person you’re conversing with will research whatever you say. If you make such a claim, make sure the person knows that it’s your opinion or belief.
- There’s strength in numbers. If you must confront someone, it’s always better if there’s someone with you to help guide the discussion. They don’t have to be involved, but just having another person there will probably make the conversation more civil and easier to follow.
- Know when to walk away. I cannot stress this enough. Some people will say anything to get a rise out of you. Don’t give them that satisfaction. If the other person is not making any effort to understand you, it’s a lost cause. Let it go.
You can make the world better by spreading knowledge and lessening ignorance. Good luck, and, dare I say, Godspeed.