The Politics of Difference

Chicago celebrated St. Patrick’s Day on March 12 by dyeing the river green and having a parade. I wanted to go and enjoy the parade festivities before studying for final exams. So, I took the bus to downtown Chicago and got off at Michigan Ave. I was carrying my backpack with me which held my laptop and notebooks, because I wanted to study. Immediately when I got off, I heard some guys behind me say “suicide backpack” and I thought that they were referring to me, even though I wasn’t able to catch the entirety of what they said. I then thought to myself about the Boston Marathon bombing and how the two brothers who were indicted were wearing backpacks in a crowded area. Wearing a hijab as well, I realized that maybe this is not the place to be, especially after Trump just came to Chicago the day before (but thankfully, Chicagoans protested him away) and people were already getting tipsy before 1 pm. I left immediately, feeling unsafe and uncomfortable. Did I overanalyze the situation? Possibly. Regardless, I am constantly on “high alert” and in “defense” mode as a visible Muslim American woman.

This is not a post about “woe is me.” It is rather a reflection on feeling different. I choose to wear my hijab and I choose to dress modestly. I also chose to attend the University of Chicago Divinity School Masters of Divinity program knowing that there would be few, if any, Muslims in the program, and furthermore, that the program content and readings are mostly Christian-centered. As a second year MDiv, I’m well into the program in terms of its content and methodology. I have taken courses on preaching and pastoral care and counseling so far. I am the only Muslim in my cohort of 14 students. “Tokenism” is something I have had to grapple with since day one, but thankfully, my peers have tried to move beyond seeing me as the only person who speaks for Islam. Discussions have sometimes been tense when Islam comes up. As an example, for one of my pastoral care and counseling classes on violence, we read about violence against women in ministerial settings. One Christian student spoke out against this and then looked at me and said, “In Islam, they burn women.” I was actually shocked and not expecting a statement like that, but I replied that it’s actually cultural practices that do horrendous things like honor killing and burning women, which is nowhere allowed in Islam. My teacher tried to change the discussion by suggesting that Christians and Muslims individually look at their scriptures regarding violence against women. I understand the discussion needed to move on, but I felt upset that I couldn’t defend my position more.

I am grateful to be a student at this Divinity School. Nevertheless, I often question if getting an MDiv as a Muslim wanting to be a chaplain is the best preparation for such training from an institution like the University of Chicago whose pedagogy centers around Christian literature. While Muslims and Christians do share similar theologies, there are some readings I cannot agree with nor support with my values. Perhaps, then, it is my responsibility to educate myself and my professors on readings that could supplement our main texts. I am not the only non-Christian in this program. There are several Buddhists, two Hindu students, and one humanist/atheist. Perhaps I should speak with my non-Christian classmates about how they feel reading mostly Christian-based sources. Right now, I am trying to figure out how best to make the most out of the rest of my one and half years in this program that has made me realize more clearly the importance of more Islamic-based texts on ministry and/or the importance of me learning about Islamic theology from various perspectives. I continue to reflect on the St. Patrick’s Day incident and realize that the difference I sometimes feel in academia also extends to my public self. I can appreciate and respect this difference or I can choose to feel like an outsider. The choice is mine, but the current environment of Islamophobia makes it harder to not feel so different.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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