Thursday, May 9, 2013

Muslims, Universities and Belonging

Since my Belonging piece of two weeks ago, (April 2013) I’ve been thinking of young people and community. For my part, as an undergraduate, I came to feel part of the smaller “campus community” through attending exciting guest lectures, seeing the quadrangle in the moonlight, helping friends navigate between their parents and their brave new university culture—“you can’t go home again.”

Back then I never thought about Muslim students coming from lands without democracy—are such places lacking “community?” This I wonder because recently, with the graphic autobiography Marzie (Poland under communism) and Anna’s story To the Edge of the Sky (China under communism), I have become aware of how mean people under oppression can be. During the 1980’s I found the Russians had a saying, “Everyone moves alone” meaning they wouldn’t help anyone move their stuff to a new residence. How alien to us. Could it be that people suffering oppression can’t cooperate with each other, are instead thrown back on their clan and family, because they can’t care about each other?

I am wondering because two or three more young men in Boston, from the former Soviet Union, have been arrested: not radicalized jihad-ists, just guys who recognized the photographs of the killers. But then, instead of telling the community, they went to the bomber’s residence and threw evidence in the dumpster. As you know, further mass loss of life was avoided only because the terrorists were caught on their way to kill again in New York City. Did the young men put “friendship” over the community? Over saving lives? Did they delegate “caring” to the “government?” That’s not how democracy works.

Meanwhile, in Canada, a university PhD student has been arrested for terror, for plotting to kill people on a passenger train. Strange: I always think of hot-blooded students as trying to be fair, and of professors as trying to be sane and thoughtful. Not always, I guess. If I were a young student, today, my “meaning of life” conversations would be about belonging to a community.

I think, if I were a Muslim student today, I would open-mindedly ask: Could our community include atheists from former communist countries, and atheists with parents from Muslim countries? Furthermore, how could democracy ever work if we try to keep people out of our community and out of our heart? How could we deny them—or ourselves—the chance to volunteer to join in sandbagging the river against a terrible spring flood, or help in a summer riverbank clean up, or run in a fall marathon to raise funds for cancer research? After all, such actions by “the people,” not “the government,” are important for feeling responsible for democracy, important for a feeling of belonging to the community.

I wish I could be an undergraduate again, in the dormitories late at night, listening to students reasoning it out.

I decided this piece needed to be posted again.
Muslims, University and Belonging
I've been thinking lately about Muslim students at university. A few months back the world newspapers carried a story where a prominent beauty pageant contestant, a Muslim, made some anti-west pro-violence public statements. From Muslim students worldwide the silence, as usual, was deafening. In my own neck of the woods there was no sign of any Muslim "idealistic longhaired student" rebuttal. Why not?

The Muslim population is probably too big to be compared to subcultures such as gypsy, mafia or biker. The parents in those narrow minded groups, it seems to me, would rather their children attended technical schools, career colleges or were trained in hospitals rather than become creative liberated thinkers. Forget university—No questions allowed!

I used to wonder about the mafia. How does a young criminal find a nice proper Catholic girl to marry? Easy: find girl raised in a mafia family. Perhaps, as in the movie Good Fellas, she was beaten with a broom handle as child. Her crime valuing family will embrace not only dysfunction but also control of members. They will have a word for outsiders; they won't marry them.


Needless to say, in any subculture, no one's consciousness is raised enough to say, "We believe in dysfunction and control." It's like how a "dystroling" member of biker gang reacts so unconsciously if a member enters the biker clubhouse wearing a soft pink T-shirt. Now, if a sociologist was present, observing, then he alone would know the thoughts: ..."If one person can dress outside the norms of our subculture then others may feel free to dress with less rigid gender roles, or to dress like colorful ethnics, or... like suburban "straight Johns," and soon we will feel some sympathy for others, and then consideration for others, and how the heck can we commit crimes against others if we feel consideration?..." The biker will simply say, "Arrg! What's that crap you're wearing?"

My brother once wore the uniform of a Boy Scout. He was a clean-cut wholesome youth until he went away to university. He came home at Christmas with (gasp!) long hair! And a purple puffy shirt! How Mom used to iron that shirt so vigorously, hoping it would wear out. But this was back in the age of perma-press and miracle fabrics. Mom never despaired of my brother's appearance. She knew that a well brought up considerate kid might become a liberal, but never a sinner. I suppose parents back then comforted each other with a variety of jokes, one of which could have gone (my version): a kid comes home the first Christmas and he's a communist, next year a socialist, next year a liberal, and in his final year a conservative... Perhaps when orthodox parents warn that attending university may lead to cigarettes and sex, what they secretly mean is: may lead to freedom of thought. No questions allowed!


While a small rigid subculture could be threatened when a young adult learns to "compare and contrast" I don't think a big flexible culture can be harmed. Take Jade Snow Wong, the author of Fifth Chinese Daughter. After graduating university, as her book makes clear, her culture remained inspirational although imperfect. One day in class Jade sat up straight when she heard a teacher say something like, "Once children were economic assets, but now we raise them for the joy of it." Suddenly her family/culture's repetition of "Be obedient" was put into context. As a French student, Jackie Mousseau, once told me, "The truth shall set you free...but first it shall make you miserable."

During school I talked to many students, French and otherwise, because in my Introduction to Psychology textbook (by Zimbardo) I had read that only half of your education at school comes from textbooks, the other half comes from teachers and other students. Back in my day, of course, the classes were much smaller in size making it easier to learn how to discuss, but still—Today's students, Muslim or otherwise, have no excuse not to at least make an effort. If you can't ask "meaning of life" questions by yourself then go listen to others. I remember how at two different student parties, Friday and Saturday, I quietly listened to a discussion of "does joy in life equal sad?" You just won't get that topic in the working world, nor ones like, "Does truth make you miserable?" or, "Are farm kids more obedient?" or, "If we want computer designers (nerds) in a company to be more creative, then should they be allowed to wear pink T-shirts and jeans rather than a proper dark business suit?" In the business world this last question could be intuitively answered if you had been awake back in university. Questions are allowed!


At this point in my thinking I am beginning to answer my opening question: why the Muslim student silence? I'm almost ready to approach the question head on. If the silence is worldwide then I guess I can't blame local students, but what I can do is feel hope. Perhaps schools overseas are not as liberal as ours, while here the schools are embedded in a culture of growth, not status quo. Here is where the silence will first be broken. I dimly recall anthropologist Margaret Mead writing that Americans change faster than the rest of the world because of American youth. John-boy will say, "Dad, let's get one of those newfangled steam tractors." Dad will reply, "In the old country my father and his father found horses were good enough..." but eventually John-boy will get his dad to try a tractor. I remember visiting a college girl's house when her parents were not home. Joyce Gee was Chinese; the tableware was western. She explained that her brother had got her parents to change tableware just last year.

Her's another meaning of life topic: Does having a Muslim religion mean you are part of a culture, or a rigid subculture? For now, perhaps the latter is true. If a Muslim religious leader writes in my local newspaper forum (this happened) to say that Muslims here in Canada are hard done by, well, I don't expect a student to come home that afternoon and say otherwise. Not: "Mom, I've been talking with students, including sociology majors, and they say that we Muslims are treated no worse than folks from France or China."

(Meaning of life)

A local Muslim leader might write in to echo the words of the Egyptian ambassador, (Canwest news service, Ottawa, March 9, 2007)"...because, honestly, if you look at things from a world perspective, it is as if Muslims or Islam are under attack and under siege around the world." ...For now, it's as if no one is coming home to refute such propaganda. Not: "Dad, I've been talking to students and I can assure you that even science majors, even after 9/11, are barely aware that there are non Arab Muslim nations, and can barely name any of them. So if there's a conspiracy against Islam then our nation's best and brightest youth have somehow been left in the dark."

Perhaps Muslim students don't trust their parents enough to talk to them. After all, students in my youth were known to say, "Don't trust the establishment!" and "Don't trust anyone over 30!" Or perhaps they don't trust their longhaired idealistic save-the-whales fellow students. Either way, I have hope. I believe in youth. I believe candles will soon be lit here in North America that will go on to light the world.

Sean Crawford
losing my hair but trying not to lose my open-mindedness
posted to the net Spring 2008.12

Footnotes regarding American youth:

~ in 1945 U.S. infantryman Raymond Gantter, while fighting through Germany, speculated that Germans wanted to mold their children into German traditions while "Americans, having no real tradition, see their children not as carbon copies of themselves, but as the potentials of something better. Americans are secretly humble before the promise of thier children, Germans are not." (p316 of Roll Me Over)

~ You may recall Bill Cosby "doing an Art Linkletter" by interviewering kids on "Kids say the darndest things." I remember watching Art's original show in black and white. This was before transistors and "portable TVs," back when families only had one TV set. Back in the 'fifties Art learned that foreign kids were different. If he asked, "How would you change your father?" a U.S. kid might gleefully say, "I'd make it so that he would watch Zorro instead of wrestling matches." A foreign child would freeze or say blankly, "Change my father?"

~ As noted in my Atrocities (May 2011) essay the average army age was 26; Gantter was a 30 year old private when he first went into battle. He was a junior and senior NCO (noncommissioned officer) before being awarded a silver star and a battlefield commission. As a tough fighting man, with a wife and kids back in the states, he wrote, "Perhaps we baby our children too much, but I like it that way." (p316)

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