MADISON, Wis. - University of Wisconsin-Madison student and Muslim Student Association member Andy Diaz converted to the Muslim religion when he was 15 years old.
“I feel happy that I’ve become Muslim, because I’ve learned more about myself as a person, more about Islam, and because I feel like I can connect more with the Muslim community,” Diaz said.
After six years of practicing the faith, Diaz encourages others to do some research for themselves.
“Even if it’s not a personal religious reason; maybe it’s just to learn more about the faith,” Diaz said.
Almost 200 people wanted to gain that education Monday evening during a panel about Islamophobia.
UW-Madison’s Middle East Studies Program and Center for Humanities held the panel to shed light on this national issue. The event was named “Fighting Islamophobia”, which the six panelists said is a growing fear affecting how Muslim’s are perceived.
“Islamophobia not only impacts Muslims, but every American who cares about freedom and democracy,” said Nasra Wehelie, panelist and development director for Madison-Area Urban Ministry.
The term Islamophobia has lately become a common phrase, meaning a fear of Islam or Muslims. The panelists and groups at UW-Madison are trying to teach that it’s not something to be afraid of.
“We’re different colors, different origins. Nobody can change that,” said Alhagie Jallow, panelist and Imam of the Masjid US-Sunnah.
Another panelist, John Vaudreuil, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, works closely with Islamic communities.
“What I’ve seen as my role in these events and all my outreach to the Muslim communities, is to put a face to the government (and) tell them there’s somebody who respects them. We trust them as our neighbors, and we want them to be our neighbors,” Vaudreuil said.
He said in recent years, even the past few months, fear has not only instilled in those who don’t understand Islam, but also those who are directly targeted.
“I do see fear, certainly confusion and uncertainty, because (we don’t know) what’s going to happen,” Vaudreuil said.
He said because of that uncertainty, it’s important, now more than ever, to understand the culture and get to know someone who is a practicing Muslim on a personal level.
“Stay engaged. Don’t be afraid. I think consistently among all of us on the panel, I think that the theme of engagement, which reduces fear and brings us closer together, that’s the theme,” Vaudreuil said.
Vaudreuil also highlighted hate crimes against Muslims during his time on the panel. He said nationally, lawyers have prosecuted around 300 cases in the past couple years. He went on to say law enforcement is always on standby to assist with any hate crimes, they just need to be reported.
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