MICHIGAN — On the first day of classes back in 2006, Mohammad Khalil, then a graduate student, asked his students what they think of when he says the words Islam and Muslim, pronouncing them in different ways.
“What’s interesting is initially when I first started, a lot of it was Bin Laden, 9/11, terrorism,” Khalil said during a Zoom interview with Fox 17 this week. “What happens though over time I noticed students moving away from that now. So, now when I ask ‘what’s the first thing that comes to mind,' often I’ll hear things like mosque, Ramadan, things that are rather neutral.”
Khalil said it’s a good sign that perspectives towards Islam and Muslims are shifting.
Now, years later, he enjoys being a religious studies professor at Michigan State University and connecting with his students. However, it’s a career path he almost didn’t choose.
Until September 11, 2001.
“First of all I can tell you that for many Muslims, 9/11 felt like we were attacked twice,” Khalil said. “First you had the actual attacks, which were devastating and shocking, and many of the victims were Muslim by the way. A lot of people don’t know that.”
Then, there was the rise in hate crime towards Muslims, he said. It’s called Islamophobia and it encompasses everything from a slur to violence.
“The most inclusive answer that I’ve seen is fear of and or hatred of Islam and or Muslims,” he said. “So, it can potentially be a whole bunch of different things. I typically think we use it these days in the same way we use the term antisemitic in referring to hatred of Jewish people.”
He said many Muslims were scared during that time. As for Khalil, he made some big life decisions.
“I remember personally 9/11 really shook me,” Khalil recalled. “I actually ended up leaving dental school ultimately because of 9/11 and going into religious studies.”
Khalil was an undergrad at the University of Michigan when the attacks happened. He said he made the switch because he felt he was being emotionally “pulled in another direction.”
“First of all here you have a group of people claiming to be doing something in the name of Islam,” Khalil said. “So, I wanted to understand what’s really going on here. So, part of it is just wanting to understand.”
Secondly, he wanted to dispel any misconceptions. So, he studied it all and later became a professor.
“I remember when I first started teaching when I would ask students ‘what’s the country with the largest Muslim population?’ No one would figure it out,” said Khalil, who’s also the director of the Muslim Studies program at MSU. “No one would know it’s Indonesia. Now, when I ask the same question, it seems like half the class already knows the answer.”
Khalil said he even shows Muslim music videos to his students to show them a different aspect of Muslim life. He challenges them, himself, and others to think differently all the time in order to achieve understanding.
“Go talk to people with a different perspective. I’m saying this to everybody now, myself included,” Khalil said. “Let’s go listen to other people with different perspectives maybe we’ll learn something along the way.”