"I think those Islams and those Muslims and those Iraqistanians, those Afghanistanians… They should all just go back to Africa."

This was an opinion I heard on the radio a few hours after the Sept.11, 2001, attacks. Although many of you find this statement humorous because of the speaker's ignorance on geography and Islam, it actually served as my wakeup call. As a Muslim, it fell on my shoulders to preach and clarify what I was practicing. I was quite possibly the only Muslim many of my colleagues knew. As much as I didn't want to be, I was responsible for the image of Islam in their minds. My experience wasn't unique: Many Muslims were being scrutinized by the American public on their ability to adapt and intermingle with other Americans.

Sept. 11 created a vacuum in the minds of many Americans about Islam. It was a vacuum that was going to be filled by either a Muslim voice or people opposing Islam. It has, therefore, become the responsibility of Muslims to speak up and educate non-Muslims about the misconceptions that exist about our religion.

While Muslims in America have come under intense scrutiny recently, Islam's roots in America date back to the era of slavery, but most slaveholders did not allow their slaves to practice their culture, religion or even their native language and, therefore, very few could pass it on to their children. It has been documented that the first Muslim immigrants arrived in America by way of ships as early as 1880 and were mostly from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. There were waves of Muslim immigrants after World War I and World War II when the United States loosened its immigration policy.

Today there are more than a billion Muslims worldwide, making it the second-largest religion on earth. It is also the fastest-growing religion, which has led some to hypothesize that it will be the largest religion in less than 100 years. It is also the second largest and fastest growing religion in America itself.

These statistics may be a point of pride for Muslims, but they are a source of fear for many Americans. People have always feared or been skeptical of what they don't understand and what they see as being "outside influence." This has been compounded by Fox News and other conservative broadcasters who regularly engage in some form of "Islam bashing." This fear and mistrust can even be seen on this campus by the recent visits of David Horowitz and Robert Spencer, two individuals known for spreading false information about Islam, thereby creating "Islamophobia."

I am using the term Islamophobia because American's fear of Islam is based mainly on misconceptions about the religion. In no way does the religion itself discriminate against women or advocate killing innocent people as some claim. Americans need to understand the difference between cultural practices and Islam itself. People like Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Spencer serve to blur this distinction and generate Islamophobia.

Islamophobia has forced Muslims in America to further their own understandings of Islam. Because of the increased scrutiny that Islam is currently under, many Muslims constantly find themselves having to defend Islam. In fact, an argument could be made that the rise of Islamophobia in America has helped Muslims gain more attention and influence. This can be seen here on campus by the growth of the introductory Islam class from 40 students to more than 200. Also, when the College Republicans sponsored Mr. Horowitz to come speak as part of Islamofacism Awareness Week, they inadvertently gave the Muslim Students Association more publicity and coverage than they had ever received in the past. Because of Mr. Horowitz, the MSA had interviews on radio stations and made connections to other groups right here on campus.

As a MSA board member, I would like to invite everyone to come learn about Islam from Muslims themselves. You can learn about our events by going to www.uw-msa.org and signing up for the list serve. Also, keep your eyes and ears open for Islam Awareness Week next semester when the MSA will be hosting lectures and workshops open to the public. In the meantime, you can visit the campus mosque on 21 N. Orchard St. for Friday services that start at 12:30 p.m.

Dr. Cohen, a UW professor and director of the LUBAR Institute for the Study of Abrahamic Religions, recently spoke at a discussion panel regarding contemporary Muslims. He stated that the challenges faced by Muslims are not unlike those faced by other groups in the past and that over time, Muslims will be accepted and integrated into society.

Insha'Allah (God willing).

Ammar Ali ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in genetics. He is also a member of the Muslim Students Association.