With its charming galleries, wide archways, and gorgeous gardens, the historic Thomas Center is one of Gainesville’s gems. On January 20, it transformed into a local forum for speaking out on one of the issues haunting our country: the spread of Islamophobia.


We, Amna Qureshi and Gloria Li, University of Florida freshmen, decided to attend this forum and interview some of the other attendees. The keynote speaker began the event by presenting on the current state of Islamophobia in the United States. Dr. Hatem Bazian, a Berkeley professor in Islamic Studies and Philosophy who flew in to give his talk, told us that his take-home message was very simple. He said, “It is our responsibility to take back civil society, and make a civil society that works for everyone. Because racism negates our ability to build a better society.”


The event continued with several breakout sessions, where the attendees could rotate between discussions about the Syrian refugee crisis, how to combat Islamophobia locally, and the media’s treatment of Muslim-Americans. At the first session we attended, the one about Syrian refugees, we noticed a particularly outspoken individual named Kalki Bergman. He enthusiastically volunteered his unconventional views on the subject, having grown up in the Middle East before moving to America. Afterward, we interviewed him and he told us that his “main issue is why is there the diaspora of Middle Eastern refugees. I was welcomed into this country, and I feel they should be welcomed here, too. But at the same time, I feel like we should address the underlying issue of why they are leaving.”


Thus, Kalki Bergman concluded, “My concern is that we are not addressing the main issue.”


Our second group discussion was a passionate exchange of ideas about how to ameliorate the effects of Islamophobia in our Gainesville community. Near the end of the discussion, a voice from the corner spoke out; heads turned towards the police officer, dressed in sharp uniform, who had been standing there and surveying the scene coolly. Captain Jorge Campos of the Gainesville Police Department shared with us after the session some of his personal insight into the matter, saying, “The basic is education and open communication and the willingness to listen to someone else. Try to find out the facts, try multiple sources— because all the different sources put their own little spin on what the facts show… you have your facts and your truths.


After taking a breath, he continued, “Facts are facts, and truths are our perceptions of the facts, which are affected by our own implicit biases, our own life experiences, our own upbringing, our own religion, our family, so on and so forth. All of that filters what we see when we look at the facts.”


The third and final session involved a talk about the media and film industry, and how they shape the American view of Islam. After this, we interviewed one of the speakers, Ken Chitwood (religious scholar, writer, presenter). An incredibly eloquent man, we preserve his words in full:


“Language and representation are important in how the media cover Islam. So they need to be careful in the language they use, whether they’re using the word Islamic or Muslim or Salafi or Wahhabi, they need to use it correctly and they need to use it evenly… They also need to make sure they represent the entirety of the Muslim community, rather than just terrorism or violence or oppression of women, they need to talk about the stories that matter to Muslims that should matter to us all, about their holidays, their fundraising, their organizing for peace and their work for good in the United States and around the world.”


To say the least, the event was a resounding success. The panelists who presented provided the audience of local Gainesville citizens a variety of perspectives regarding the issue of Islamophobia in America, and we are thankful that there was a safe space to discuss this controversial topic. Paula Roestcher, the University of Florida student who organized the forum, told us why she had decided to hold such an event and how she wanted Gainesville to be a Floridian pioneer in the Welcoming Cities initiative for helping new immigrants adjust to life in the States. Paula Roestcher, an international student, said, “I’m from Germany and I came here three and a half years ago. When I arrived, I was warmly welcomed in Gainesville and the United States, and I want it to be an experience for everyone who comes here, no matter where they come from. That was my inspiration for putting on this event because recently — in the news, we’ve been hearing a lot of anti-Muslim rhetoric. It’s hurtful, and it is so sad, and it has nothing to do with American values, and it needs to be challenged in community events like this where everyone has a chance to speak.”

Her take home message? “Do not take what you see in the media at face value. Ask questions. If you have a question about Islam, ask a Muslim friend or coworker. And speak up. If you see something very wrong on social media, or if you hear someone say something racist or xenophobic in your class or at work, you need to speak up, because you need to defend the people who are not given a voice right now.”


Before we left, we made sure to exchange a quick word with Aqueela Khuddus, who is on the Committee for Global Islamic Studies that helped Paula put the event together. We asked her what the most important take-away from the event was, and she said that “Coming together, getting to know each other, realizing how much more we have in common than not— regardless of faith, race, culture, we are all human beings with the same soul, same needs. And we need to understand that. We cannot let religion, race and culture divide us. We need to be accepting of it, inclusive of everybody, and bring everybody together. Live and let live… you know, everybody’s having a good time. I think everybody’s having a good time. We’re all enjoying what we are, right?”
We’d like to answer that in the affirmative. Perhaps that undeniably sunny attitude is exactly the optimism we need in America’s troubled political landscape. By participating in forums like this, we can open ourselves up to the diversity of beliefs and cultures that exist alongside us. After all, the unknown has the potential to be much more frightening than the known. So do yourself a favor, and this February, have a genuine conversation with a Muslim friend or coworker about their faith. See what you can do to fight Islamophobia right here in Gainesville, Florida. Happy Islam Appreciation Month!