What I learned teaching Islamic studies in Texas

“How can you teach a religion you don’t even practice?” people would ask, including the president of a university during...

(RNS) — As far as I know, I was the first Sikh hired to teach Islamic studies at an American university. I loved every minute of it, especially because my employer, Trinity University, was located in my beloved hometown of San Antonio, Texas.

My first real job also shed new light for me on what it’s like to be an underrepresented minority in this country. Most Americans, in short, don’t know who Sikhs are. Typically they presume we are Muslims, mostly as a result of Islam being racialized in the past few decades: It’s not just a faith, it’s also a look, and the resulting stereotypes square with the appearance of many Sikh men — brown skin, turban, beard. That’s me...

...For instance, I was surprised (though I probably shouldn’t have been) by the hate aimed at me in my job. People were angry when I spoke out about a 14-year-old Muslim boy in Texas who had been wrongfully accused of bringing a bomb to school. Local law enforcement handcuffed, detained and questioned him for 90 minutes without permitting him to see his parents. My tweet of solidarity with the boy became part of the story on “Good Morning America” and CNN International. Some called our university president’s office demanding I be fired.

My university supported me, as it did when I got a credible death threat and had to involve authorities. And the time right-wing outlets published defamatory pieces that confused me with another Sikh man, landing me on the notorious Professor Watch List.

In this sense, what I learned by teaching Islamic studies will always be with me. I can only hope that other universities won’t have second thoughts about hiring me because I’ve appeared on an academic watch list.

But this stays with me too: the wonderful students, colleagues and administrators who welcomed me and listened when I shared my darker lessons as I have here. The sharing of our experience helps others see realities that would be hard to imagine otherwise. Through my own stories I hope they too saw what our Muslim neighbors and every minority goes through in trying to overcome the racial and religious supremacies so deeply embedded in the world around us.

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