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Front Page - Friday, April 7, 2017

UTC’s Kahlot hopes to share a different side of Islam

Student group president looks to allay fears, counter violent narrative

Warda Kahlot doesn’t remember encountering prejudice in her native Bronx, or even after her Palestinian dad and Dominican mom moved the family to Chattanooga when she was a kindergartener.

It was only when she started wearing a hijab, the traditional head covering for Muslim women, after attending a summer school class on religion at age 12, that everything changed.

“I noticed a lot of the people I used to hang out with kind of avoided me from that point on, and they wouldn’t talk to me,” says Kahlot, 20. She is seated at a table outside the Reflection Area, a dedicated prayer room at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga that on this day is locked for spring break.

“They kind of isolated me in a sense, and I couldn’t figure out why that was. I thought maybe I was just bad at socializing, but it was such a drastic change, once I started wearing it.”

Through middle and high school, Kahlot adds, other students would occasionally shout, “Suicide bomber!” when they saw her pass by.

“People would just avoid me, think I was super-religious, super-serious, and they would tell me that they were kind of scared of me. I had a friend say that she would be scared to see me on a plane. … I’ve had a teacher tell me, when we were creating a group project and we were naming our group, that I should call it the Islamic Extremists. I didn’t even know how to respond.”

Two years into her presidency of the Muslim Students Association, a low-key, student-led support organization, Kahlot is determined to help shatter stereotypes about her beliefs.

“Religion is a big part of my life,” she says. “I like looking to God for help.”

Friendly, articulate and animated, with stunning dark eyes beneath an ivory-hued hijab, Kahlot is now a junior in her second semester of nursing school. She originally set out to become an architect – she loved geometry in high school – but changed her mind after shadowing Dr. Christopher LeSar, a well-known vascular surgeon, at a local hospital, for a senior project. While watching him operate, she met a nurse anesthetist whose career intrigued her.

“It had to do a lot with medications and making sure people stayed alive while in surgery,” she recalls. “And I was just fascinated by it.”

Her goal is to pursue a job in the anesthesiology field, with the option to go back to medical school later for a more advanced degree.

As president of MSA, which was formed in 2013 by a former UTC student, Kahlot is responsible for educating other students about Islam and dispelling misconceptions surrounding a religion that is frequently in the news and feared by many Americans in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attack.

Chattanooga experienced a terrorist attack of its own in 2015 in with four Marines killed and three other people were injured. The gunman, identified by the FBI as 24-year-old Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez, was killed in a firefight with police. A Muslim and naturalized citizen, he was a graduate of Red Bank High and UTC.

Mayor Andy Berke called the attack, “a nightmare for the City of Chattanooga,” and the shooting was condemned by Muslims leaders.

“Such inexcusable acts of violence must be repudiated by Americans of all faiths and backgrounds,’’ said Nihad Awad, the National Vice-President of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, after the shooting.

The MSA works to help non-Muslims understand that Islam is not about violence.

“The whole point is to build a community,” Kahlot says. “We don’t want you guys to be afraid of us because we’re Muslim. We want you to feel comfortable.”

More than anything, Kahlot says she wants Chattanoogans and other Americans to understand, “We are not a violent religion. A lot of what the media says about Islam comes with bias. They exaggerate things. Islam doesn’t condone [violence]. But people will often take religion and see it their own way and then do violent things because of that.”

What’s more, she says, “If you want to put things into perspective, domestic terrorism in the U.S. is mostly committed by Christian white males.”

A 2015 New York Times article quotes University of North Carolina Professor Charles Kurzman and Duke Professor David Schanzer’s findings that that “right-wing extremists” averaged 337 attacks per year in the decade after 9/11, causing a total of 254 fatalities. Islam-inspired terror attacks accounted for 50 deaths since 9/11.

The Muslim Students Association has hosted several well-attended, extra-credit lectures about the basics of the faith, the role of Jesus in Islam and other topics, with area professionals speaking at the events.

“We do not do debates,” Kahlot insists. “That’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to say, ‘Hey, we’re right and you’re wrong.’ Our goal is to educate and allow discussion so people can ask questions, because a lot of times they’re afraid to ask.

Current MSA membership is low, Kahlot explains. Only a half-dozen students are active or have expressed interest, mainly because most of the original members have graduated and newcomers to UTC don’t always know about the group. The MSA does not discriminate; Christians and other non-Muslims are welcome to join too.

The greatest accomplishment of the MSA so far, Kahlot says, is the allocation of the Reflection Area, originally designed as a prayer room for Muslims. Before it opened, devout followers on campus struggled to find private places to pray five times a day, at specific moments and facing the Kaaba, a stone, cube-shaped building in the most sacred Islamic site in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

Kahlot is working to secure a larger room where people of all religions can worship, as well as a marker pointing toward the Kaaba. Right now, she says, “We just have to look it up on our phones.” 

Kahlot is also president of HOLA (Hispanic Outreach Leadership Association), which strives to empower Latino and Hispanic students and celebrates their heritage with dance exhibitions and other events, particularly during Hispanic Heritage Month in the fall.

Just before spring break in March, HOLA held an immigration forum with an attorney, a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) student, and another who had immigrated to the U.S., to help ease fears about possible deportation.

As a little girl, Kahlot often danced the bachata of her mom’s native country with her family on Christmas and other holidays. She still enjoys the rhythm of Latin music, but only in private.

“Religion-wise, I can’t dance in front of guys,” she says. “It’s kind of like wearing the hijab, and the image we’re supposed to give out. But I do dance.”

She also sketches, mostly realistic portraits, something she’s been doing since childhood.  Watching the animated Disney movie, “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” she was captivated by the characters, including Princess Kida and Milo, voiced by Michael J. Fox, and began drawing them over and over.

From then on, Kahlot concentrated mostly on cartoon figures but, after taking a few high school art classes, segued into realism. In her senior year, she filled sketchbook after sketchbook with the faces of her classmates, drawn from different angles.

Realism not only surfaces in Kahlot’s art, but in her awareness that there is much work to be done to change damaging stereotypes and myths about Muslims. She likens the symbolic hijab, for example, to a Christian cross pendant or a nun’s habit.

“Nobody can force us to do it. It has to be something that we decide to do,” she says. “When you start wearing it, you have to [act a certain way]. We’re not supposed to be wearing a hijab and going to the club.”

Leadership comes naturally to Kahlot, who remembers making up games and getting her younger cousins and siblings in trouble early on. These days, the detail-oriented Kahlot enjoys coaxing ideas from other members of the MSA and HOLA and finding a way to make them come to fruition.

“When it comes to group projects, I end up being the leader automatically,” she says. “So, people tend to tell me I have a very authoritative air to me, and they say it can be a little bit intimidating. People tend to see me as very bold, but by myself I’m very withdrawn. I like to just kind of be on my own. I’m more introverted than I am extroverted, but when I’m interacting with people, you see all the dynamism in my personality.”

Despite nationwide apprehension about Muslims – and their perceived connection to the terrorist group ISIS – Kahlot hasn’t seen a significant change in how UTC students treat their Islamic classmates. “But,” she says, “there have been students who have been asking for something to be done to help clear up that fear that’s coming around because of the Muslim (travel) ban and everything that’s been going on with this recent presidency.”

The University needs to organize more events to help soothe that anxiety, Kahlot points out. “I think that’s where UTC is lacking. They make statements, but then they don’t really create events or change their Welcome Week in a way that allows students to know, ‘Hey, this campus wants me here, they’re not going to kick me out, they’re not going to just let something happen to me from the other students and then just ignore it.’

“I’d like to see UTC take a more proactive approach to helping students, especially minority groups, not just Muslims, because I don’t feel like they’re doing the best job when it comes to creating a resource for these minority groups. And I think most of it is just that they don’t know what we need or what we want.”

Kahlot takes full responsibility for her organization’s role in making Muslim students feel safe and cites a “a lack of publicity on MSA’s part. So, we need to get out there more. I know as a student group, we need to reach out to them, and we have started a process for that. But it’s still a work in progress.”

Time alone will not alter skewed public perceptions about Muslims, says Kahlot. With the civil rights movement, she points out, “It was the laws that changed things. It was the education that changed things. It was a bunch of groups working together to create awareness that changed things.”

She points to the success of the annual “Meet Your Muslim Neighbor” open house at The Islamic Center of Greater Chattanooga, a mosque in East Brainerd, as an excellent model for getting past the myths, one step at a time.

“The whole point of it was to educate people and say, ‘Hey, we’re here, we’re normal people just like you,’ and kind of ease that fear a little bit. Things like that are what’s going to help, because if you go, ‘Oh, they’re just like us,’ you’re not so scared anymore.”