Students Embrace Tolerance, Promote Conversations on Religious Diversity
By: Christopher Tavolazzi
Master’s student Lamia Djeldjel and junior Salam Ali pose in the BMU. They encourage people with questions to come up and ask them about their religion rather than making assumptions.
Two women in headscarves carefully lay prayer rugs on the lawn in front of Butte Hall. They kneel down and begin prayer just as class is dismissed. Hundreds of students pass by and look, but the women remain undisturbed.
This is the climate of religious acceptance at Chico State.
There are 15 registered student religious organizations at the University. Most are Christian, a few are Muslim or Jewish, and one is secular.
The groups all support each other, said Hussein Alkhalifa, last semester's president of the Great Prophet Mohammad Association. “We share our morals and our prayers with each other.”
The Great Prophet Mohammad Association is a student organization that focuses on educating the public about Muslims and Muslim affairs. “We would just like a chance to explain ourselves,” said Alkhalifa.
One of the main obstacles of religious acceptance is the amount of ignorance in this country, said Kate McCarthy, associate professor of religious studies at Chico State.
People often don’t know the difference between a Sihk and a Muslim, and this hurts us as a country, said McCarthy. Americans come to adulthood without a grasp on the different religions represented in our country.
“I think we can go beyond polite tolerance to deeper understanding and community building,” she said.
The Religious Diversity Association (RDA), an organization founded this semester, plans to promote discussion to raise awareness, said Kaylee Dixon, secretary for the association. “We’re trying to have a nonjudgmental, neutral platform for people to come to.”
As its first unified act, the RDA will be running a campaign to combat stereotypes, said Dixon. It will have representatives of various religious and nonreligious groups fill out fliers that state their affiliation on one line and make a comment against a stereotype on another.
People have written things like “I’m a Catholic, and I’m pro-choice,” or “I’m a Mormon, but I’m not a polygamist,” said Dixon. Even if people don’t have a religious affiliation, they still have an opinion about religion, she added.
Lakshmi Ariaratnam performed the blessing before dinner at the Chico Area Interfaith Council’s 56th annual dinner at the Newman Center. Ariaratnam, born in Sri Lanka, sees religion as diverse and universal, she said. To her, different spiritualties are not different. She believes that “truth is one, faiths just call it by a different name.”
Another student organization, the Secular Students Alliance, advocates for education coupled with critical thought.
As long as religious groups are asking questions and thinking, instead of blindly following religious dogma, then that's good, said Brian Ervin, president of the Secular Students Alliance. Most religions represented at Chico State seem to be open to each other, and the level of religious diversity on campus is great, he added.
“I think everyone gets along,” he said. “I've never seen any protests of any one group against another.” Most religions share common bonds of working together, community, and treating others like you would want to be treated, and these elements are good, said Ervin.
Ten years after 9/11, there's still a lot of stereotyping and confusion about Muslims in America. Terrorist attacks often get blamed on all Muslims, not just the extremist groups that are actually responsible. Students in the Great Prophet Mohammad Association want the chance to let people know how they feel about these events as “Americans first, then Muslims,” said Alkhalifa.
Though politics are something Muslims can't ignore, Chico is a place that's different from most of the United States, said Alkhalifa. He now lives in Texas, where the contrast in tolerance from Chico is noticeable.
Alkhalifa believes people should take the message of education to their friends and family: “Before we learn about other religions, we have to learn about ourselves, because we're all human.”