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Cultural awareness overcomes lies and misconceptions

Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Many Americans adopted false impressions of Muslims after the September 11 terrorist attacks, said Muhammad Ali-Salaam, the former deputy director of special projects for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, who converted to Islam in 1975.

Speaking at the Arab, Muslim and Sikh Cultural Awareness Program in the Behrakis Health Sciences Center on Tuesday, Ali-Salaam told some two-dozen members of the Northeastern community, “People thought all Muslims wore turbans, had brown skin and were most likely associated with Afghanistan or the Middle East.

“The stereotype of what a Muslim is,” he said, “doesn’t hold water.”

The event provided insight into the cultural, religious and historical traditions of Arabs, Muslims and Sikhs, said Naomi Thompson Hall, the associate director of the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, which sponsored the program.

“The presentation,” she said, “is part of an on-going discussion about diversity, religion and being respectful.”

Sikhs in America, said Jaswant Singh Chani, a volunteer for the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, were victims of more than 600 hate crimes in the aftermath of 9/11. In one case, a gunman in Arizona who proclaimed ”I stand for America all the way,” fatally shot the Sikh owner of a Chevron gas station.

Chani blamed the hate crimes on a misconception. TV news reports, he said, “showed Osama bin Laden wearing a turban, which led some people to believe that anyone who wears a turban is a terrorist.” The Taliban and the Sikhs wear turbans in different ways, said Chani, who noted that the traditional headwear “represents equality and egalitarianism.”

Sikhism, he said, was founded in 15th century Punjab, India, and is the fifth largest religion in the world, with more than 24 million followers.

Many people in the audience were surprised to learn that more than 83,000 Sikh soldiers were killed in the two World Wars. “Sikhs believe in human rights,” Chani said. “When there is an atrocity, we will stand up and fight.”

Sara Rivera, an administrative assistant for the Latino Student Cultural Center, learned that Islamic women are allowed to vote and required to pursue an education.

“Now, when someone makes a false statement,” she said, “I’ll be able to say, ‘that’s not true.’”

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