Islamaphobia and the West

Throughout the past several months, I have been disheartened to see that the fear of Islam, and of its practitioners, seems to be getting stronger and stronger in the United States. We like to think of our country as a cultural melting pot, accepting of people from all races and religions. Anyone willing to work hard who dreams of a better start will be embraced. Except that they definitely won’t, especially not if they’re wearing a hijab, it seems.

In reality, Islam is quite similar to Christianity. In my eyes, the moral basis of both religions appears to be very similar, and the Qur’an contains much of the Bible within it. Much as Christianity considers itself to be a continuation of Judaism, Islam considers itself to be an extension and perfection of Christianity. All three of these religions are Abrahamic, and I believe that if you look their past practices and into their specific beliefs, you will find many similarities – I certainly have.

None of this is to say that two groups need to be similar in order to get along. Mutual respect should not hinge upon similarity. However, it does make it look to me as though Christians and Muslims have much more to commune about than to fight about. It feels as though it should be easy for the two groups to get along, considering how much they have in common.

And yet. So many Americans, many of them Christians, fear and are threatened by Islam. More and more lately, I’ve been pondering this and questioning why. Part of it, I’m sure, comes from the fact that people feel comfortable pitting another group against their own – you feel closer to your ingroup when you belittle an outgroup. However, I think that a lot of it comes from politicians and public figures playing up the fear of Islam in order to make themselves seem more powerful and to get themselves elected.

I’ve had several conversations with a professor of mine, and we both agree that there’s more here than even meets the eye. I do not believe by any means that these politicians are creating this fear of Islam in many Americans. I think that this fear has existed all along, and they are simply stirring it up. Mistrust of Islam runs very deep, and I would like to investigate how exactly it all began. Because of this, I have decided to conduct my honors research project next semester on the roots and contemporary manifestations of Islamaphobia in the west. I would love to educate others, and myself, on the fact that Islam should be respected, and not feared, and that Muslims are just as valuable a part of this American melting pot as everyone else.

With many good books and articles by talented, engaged people, I hope to get at the roots of this problem. Hopefully, armed with this new knowledge, I can put a good foot forward and start combating Islamaphobia in any way that I can.

4.1 Miles: The Modern Refugee Crisis

Sorry for the radio silence! This semester has been a bit of a beating, but I’m learning some awesome things and staying busy! Tonight, I had the immense pleasure of attending a screening of the documentary “4.1 Miles” and the panel talk that followed. “4.1 Miles” is a documentary about the refugee crisis in Europe, focusing on an island in Greece that sits just 4.1 miles across the sea from Turkey. The main focus of the film is one Greek man who takes several trips by boat into the see each day to rescue refugees.

This film brought tears to my eyes. The refugee crisis is often on my mind, but as a westerner with little actual exposure to it, it’s often easy to forget just how horrific the crisis is, as awful as that sounds. While watching this film, it was impossible for me to feel anything but deep sadness: sadness for the refugees fleeing brutal civil wars and losing family members in the process, sadness for this Greek man who is bearing so much of the weight of this crisis on his shoulders, and sadness that my country, like many others, is so apathetic in the face of this tragedy.

The film took place mainly on the man’s boat during rescue missions. It was harrowing to watch the soaking and terrified refugees flood the boat, clinging their children to them, crying for people that had drowned. It was heart-wrenching watching the Greek man’s eyes fill with tears as he lamented the world’s lack of response in the face of this tragic situation.

The film left me, understandably, shaken, but the three speakers did a magnificent job of transitioning from the emotional to the more analytical side of the crisis in a way that was tactful and engaging. Dr. Mitchell Smith, Dr. Mark Raymond, and graduate student Stefanie Neumieir all spoke eloquently about different facets of the crisis. Dr. Smith outlined the fact that, in the West, this crisis is often framed as a security issue, rather than a humanitarian crisis. Populist politics shape peoples perceptions, and nationalists play to people’s fears. All of this means that people view refugees as threats, rather than human beings who need help. Dr. Smith also spoke to the EU’s values of peace, tolerance, and rule of law, and of helping refugees. Some EU member countries, such as Germany and Sweden, have taken these values to heart, but many others are avoiding helping.

Dr. Raymond spoke about the fact that in the past, there were no such things as tightly controlled borders. Immigrants to the US simply had to cross the border. Sometimes, he said, if things were really strict, some immigrants might have been asked their names. He gave an impassioned speech about the fact that the world is NOT sharing the burden of this crisis equally – the countries accepting the most immigrants are often the poorest countries who are least equipped to help them. Many rich countries sit by and let them bear the burden themselves. This apathetic attitude forgets the fact that if the extreme influx of refugees becomes too much for these fragile countries to take and they fall into chaos, the problem is further compounded. Wealthy countries have the ability to do so much more than they are doing, but we seem so often to turn a blind eye.

Ms. Neumieir spoke specifically about the reception of refugees in Germany. Under Angela Merkel, Germany has been the most accepting European country toward immigrants, but that even their generosity is straining. Most notably, she mentioned the fact that most violence related to refugees is actually violence AGAINST refugees. This number, of course, is rarely reported on – people are much more content to see refugees as the enemies.

It is hard to find the words to describe how moving this film was, and how inspired I now feel to do everything I can to help refugees. These are people fleeing for their lives, relying on the help of strangers, losing friends and family members on their journey to safety. And they are facing slamming doors everywhere they go. I refuse to be afraid of them, and I refuse to turn a blind eye simply because I am far from most of the action. I am a citizen of the world first and a citizen of the United States second. Refugees, from any country, race, or religion, are people who desperately need our help. I’m going to do my best to lobby hard for the United States to provide that help.

Global Engagement Day: Study Abroad Story Time

Now that I have studied abroad twice, I was called to participate in a panel during Global Engagement Day! It’s only a little alarming to think that I’ve already made it here (we’re rounding out year three of this blog, which makes me feel old…) but an honor nonetheless. The panel I participated in was named Study Abroad Story Time, an informal panel of students who’ve been abroad mixed with students who have yet to go, swapping stories and advice. If there’s one thing I really love, especially now, it’s reminiscing about Spain. This panel was made for me!

Throughout my time abroad, I’ve generated more than a few transportation near-horror stories, and I told one or two on the panel. I had a great time listening to the stories of others – everyone has been so many amazing places, and several GEFs are incredibly gifted story tellers. And of course, I loved getting to share some of my tales from Spain and England. My favorite thing about the panel was actually the reactions I got to some of my stories. I had many great experiences in Spain, and one of the most unique was my time shadowing a resident in the emergency gynecology and obstetrics ward of the hospital in Alcalá. I’d forgotten quite how remarkable it was to get to see C-sections and babies be born in Spain until I got a stunned reaction to the story. I was feet from the king of Spain at one point. I had to wait to see the doctor until a criminal, flanked by two policeman, was finished in the one room in the free clinic. Getting to tell my crazy stories to others was a great reminder of how unique and amazing my experience was, and it made me ache to go back.

My other favorite part of the talk was getting to share my stories about my host family. I ended up being the only one at the table who had lived with a host family, and people were eager to hear about how it was. This was another element of my trip that I’d grown to take for granted – I forget that not everyone has the amazing opportunity to live with a sweet host mom and sister for four months in a cozy apartment in Madrid.

My travels have taken me to so many places and given me so many memories that I will cherish for a lifetime. Getting to spend a small part of my week sharing those sweet memories with other fellows was an absolute treat, and I can’t wait for more story-swapping next year!

Otsu 3.31.17

My Dearest Friend,

Spring has arrived in Kyoto and with it comes a new semester. It feels like so long ago that classes ended, and yet I had so many things I’d planned to do and haven’t done. However, I have accomplished a great deal since I last wrote. I’ve been working hard over the break on my Japanese. I’ve learned over 300 kanji and become somewhat more comfortable conversing in Japanese. I actually feel ready for this semester. I was so scared to start level four after I finished in January. My teachers had warned me to study hard lest I fail, and I took them to heart. After six weeks of hard work, I finally think I’m ready.

The break hasn’t all been work though. The new SKP students moved in a few weeks ago, so I’ve had the opportunity to make a host of new friends. I’m glad. The new students are very cool and I’ve had a wonderful time getting to know them. Just yesterday, a group of us went down to Otsu on Lake Biwa for the afternoon. The weather was beautiful and the lake was incredible. Lake Biwa is the largest lake in Japan, and it really seems like a tiny ocean. I could have sat by the lake and watched the water for hours. I wish we could have stayed longer and seen more, but Otsu is only a few towns away so we can always go back.

Now it’s time to study a bit more and enjoy this last weekend of freedom before classes begin on Monday. I’m excited about my classes and the adventures this semester will bring. It won’t be easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. I will try to write again after the first couple weeks and tell you how my classes are going. I hope you are doing well too. I miss you.

Sincerely,

Kestrel

Houston 2.24.17

My Dearest Friend,

I’m so glad I got to come home and see you and others these past couple weeks. Last semester was long and I needed my time at home resting more than I can say. However, as I sit here on the plane headed back across the Pacific, I’m more excited than ever to resume my adventures in Japan. I have so much left to see and do, and I don’t want to waste the rest of my break or the upcoming semester. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I want to fully enjoy it.

While I was at home visiting, I had a frustrating realization: I don’t have many stories from my time here so far. I could talk a bit about my classes and how difficult they were. I could also talk about my general impressions of Japan and Japanese culture. Outside of that, however, I didn’t have much to say. Most of my stories ended up being stories about other people, some of which I hadn’t even witnessed. How did that happen? I know a few reasons. First, experiences don’t usually make good stories without other people in them. I’ve explored a bit and seen some places, but I usually end up going by myself. This is excellent for collecting pictures but isn’t great for stories. Also, a lot of the time people are hanging out together, there’s alcohol involved. We’re all legal, so it isn’t a problem, but the party nature of most international student interactions decreases my chances both of being involved and recounting stories of it later.

I’m not really sure what to do about this dilemma. As much as I’d rather travel Japan with a few close friends, I don’t always feel like I have that option. I don’t tend to have much success planning excursions or events, and I can’t control whether or not I’m invited to come along when someone else has planned the trip. Most of the interactions I am invited to are nights out and the like. These are fun and I try to go occasionally, but allowing them to make up all of my stories paints both my time here and myself in a bad light.

I’m trying to find opportunities to make memories that I can share, but it’s difficult. Hopefully I’ll do better this semester than last, but that doesn’t set a very high bar. Wish me luck. I’ll try to write again soon.

Sincerely,

Kestrel

Look Beyond Yourself

This semester, I decided to step out of the comfort of my own sheltered existence. For years, I was obsessed with Europe - my homeland, my calling, the place where one can walk around any city and experience a million marvels of architecture and culture in a single day.

To be frank, I never felt the urge to venture beyond, to experience or learn much about the rest of the world. It felt so unfamiliar - and foreignness is scary. I dove into my high-school level world history and human geography courses, reveling in the beauty of historical and socioeconomic trends. It was all very academic. Genghis Khan did such and such, killed a bunch of people. History from a distance - these people didn't feel much like people. Their story was a collective one, and thus abstracted beyond emotion.

Enter the course Arab Spring. Already I was intensely invested, because my sister had lived in Egypt in the year before and the year after the 2011 revolution. Her normal updates at the time morphed into reassurances that she hadn't been in the metro when security forces let off tear gas, that she had stayed in her apartment while a protest went on in the square just a few meters below. My own blood's tangential involvement meant I was more personally invested in the outcome of the history being set in motion. I followed closely on social media, watched in horror as I saw photos of bloodied protesters and read about their struggles to take back control of their own beloved country.

And, this semester, I decided to jump back in academically. The class 'Arab Spring,' taught by Dr. Joshua Landis, utilizes all sorts of perspectives with which to see this important period in Middle Eastern history. Viewing the events through economic, historic, social, and personal lenses (the result of reading academic journals, memoir-like books authored by seasoned journalists, and first-person accounts alike) weaves a series of frames into one larger story of the struggle of a people. Perhaps it is the addition of social media as a crucial narrator for the revolutions, a medium through which the very people involved can offer their thoughts, unfiltered. Or the fact that it is people my age who are putting their lives at risk to overthrow the propagators of autocracy and oppression. But the course has resulted in a strange amalgamation of academic study and personal investment in the future of the region.

I encourage us all to look beyond - if all you check each day is your social media feeds, make an effort to also read the news. And if you read the news, follow social media feeds that put another layer onto the often tragic but sometimes faceless events that occur everyday around us. Become invested in knowing your world. And when a chance comes for you to change it, do your part.

A Wallet and a Journey

Instead of writing a letter today, I wanted to simply tell a story, particularly to those of my friends who are studying abroad or plan to in the future. Two weeks ago, just as my spring vacation began, I lost my wallet for the first time in my life. I was out with friends and had the wallet in my back pocket. Whenever it’s there, I check on it occasionally because I’m paranoid. Well, at one point in the evening, my wallet wasn’t there anymore. My friends and I all searched the building, retracing my steps since we’d entered. I knew I’d had it when we arrived, but now it was gone. We talked to the staff as well as a couple other foreigners we’d met, but no one knew anything of it. We finally gave one of the workers our contact information and left for the night.

The next day I filed a police report as is protocol in Japan. They assured me I would be contacted if my wallet was found. They, like everyone else I had talked to, seemed pretty sure that my wallet would turn up. In Japan, personal items are usually pretty secure. Pickpocketing and petty theft are fairly rare. Cash is a little bit more likely to be taken, but wallets are usually returned. Alas, I am one of the unlucky—my wallet still has not been found. Within a few days of submitting the police report, I had to begin preparing for this very eventuality. Do not get me wrong, things could have been much worse. Nothing totally irreplaceable was in my wallet. I didn’t have to secure a new passport or anything like that, but I did need a new Japanese residence card and a new health insurance card. So last week, I got to fully explore the wonderful world of dealing with everyday bureaucracy abroad.

I’ve mentioned in my letter series how disappointed I’ve been with myself for neglecting to really embrace my time in Japan and explore my city and the surrounding areas. Well, the natural extension of that sad fact was that I didn’t have a clue where I was supposed to be going or how I was supposed to get there. At first I was trying to work with one of my Japanese friends so that she could either go with me or walk me through these processes over the phone, but I soon realized that I didn’t have time to coordinate schedules before getting my missing items replaced. So I got a list of places I needed to go and forms I needed to acquire and then set off on my own.

I won’t go into the whole process because it was long and tedious. However, I will say I spent hours on busses getting from one part of the city to another just to struggle to communicate when I arrived. It was all incredibly stressful, but I did eventually get everything done that I needed. I was thrilled to be able to finally relax. And then, at the end of all of this, I realized something: I needed this experience more than I can every say. I know my way around the bus routes now. I am confident that in a crisis I can communicate in Japanese, even if it is somewhat childish and awkward. I’ve been to parts of the city I’d never seen and realized that different parts that I had visited were within walking distance of one another. If you had told me a month ago that I needed to, say, take a train to Tokyo, I would have immediately started asking people for help. I think I can do it myself now, even though I’ve never done it before. This whole disaster did what nothing else had and managed to finally push me out of my comfort zone. As much as I hated it and as much stress as it caused, I’m so glad it happened. Losing my wallet may very well have been the single most important and valuable moment of my trip to Japan thus far.

That’s my story. Now, a quick word to those who, like me, have trouble getting out of a comfort zone. You may think that by going abroad you’ve succeeded in breaking the barrier and popping your bubble. You haven’t. It’s far easier than I’d like to admit to build a new comfort zone in a foreign country. So don’t become complacent. And as little faith as you may have in your language abilities, you’ll be ok. I have friends who haven’t taken a day of Japanese who have seen more of Japan than I can name. You are your greatest enemy and biggest barrier. So get out of your own way. Yes, be careful and be smart. But the world isn’t dangerous enough to justify missing it. Do what you came to do. Don’t sit in your room and binge Netflix—that’s what home is for. You have to do it for yourself. After all, we can’t all be lucky enough to lose our wallets.

Kyoto 1.22.17

My Dearest Friend,

My first semester here at Ritsumeikan has finally ended. The last of my tests have been taken and papers turned in. I now have two months to relax and explore Japan before my second semester begins.

This semester was difficult and full of new experiences for me. It has been my first time living abroad, my first time living for a significant period of time without access to a car, and my first long-term experience with a language barrier. I’ve met people from all over the world who speak every language I can imagine. They come from so many backgrounds and are working toward a myriad of futures. Honestly, it makes me feel small. I’ve seen and done so little compared to most of these people. I’m trying to learn Japanese as my second language, I’ve only been to three countries in the world, and I’m already in my twenties. I have friends here who worked abroad in high school. It makes me wonder how much I missed on account of being born in America.

Don’t get me wrong, I love America. I grew up there, and it’s my home. However, it’s not perfect. The rest of the world seems so far away and insignificant as a child in the US, but it’s not. The world is a vast and marvelous place and has much to teach us, both as individuals and as a country. Many of the issues that are tearing apart America have found various resolutions in other countries. Instead of fighting about what ifs, why don’t we look at the outcomes? As Americans, we like to look at the rest of the world as if it was still in the 18th century. We talk about freedom and our unique place in the world. Yes, we are still a great country wielding a lot of power. But where the rest of the world has seen great progress in the last 200 years, we keep looking back at “the glory days.” I love the foundation of our country and the ideals of our nation. But the world is not the same place as it was when we were founded, and it’s naïve to act like nothing has changed.

When I left America to come to Japan, I didn’t know much about the rest of the world. I thought I did, but I was wrong. I still know very little, but I know some things. And the biggest thing I’ve learned is that while the US has an incredibly strong military, we are not the only important players in the world. We don’t know everything, and in a lot of areas, we’re falling behind our peers. So instead of arguing about the precise meaning of a centuries old document, can we agree to open our eyes and start doing something? I’ve met so many people here who would not go to America if you paid them, not with the way our country functions right now. And I can’t really blame them. But it is my country, and I won’t abandon it, not if I can help it.

My friend, please try to learn something from my experiences here. I know it’s hard to see clearly from inside, but try. We have to do something, and we can’t all get up and spend a year abroad. All we can do is try to bring that global awareness back with us in our suitcases and share it. I miss you dearly. Hopefully I’ll see you soon.

Sincerely,

Kestrel

Kyoto 12.29.16

My Dearest Friend,

Merry Christmas! I’m sorry I didn’t write sooner, but we’ve only been off school for a couple days now. I even spent Christmas studying for a test. But I’m alright. I have another week of break and then only a couple weeks left of the semester. It’s been a really long semester, so I won’t be too upset to see it end.

Although Christmas itself wasn’t particularly special, I’m enjoying my time off. I’m trying to do a full detox from stress, drama, and worries. So far it’s gone well. I’ve spent a lot of time relaxing, sleeping, catching up on housework, and trying to get into a good habit of doing yoga in the mornings. I’m also trying to work on my overall health a bit. I’ve spent the majority of this semester sick with one thing or another, so I’m trying to improve my nutrition and general well-being. I want to be healthier and better able to focus next semester so I can make the most of my time here.

This semester I haven’t done a lot of the things I meant to do and said I would do. Part of that was justified, part of it wasn’t. Now my goal is to figure out what I need to do differently so that I’m able to explore Kyoto and the rest of Japan before I leave. I don’t want to waste this chance. I’ve gone a few places and done some cool things, but I’ve created a new comfort zone here in Japan, which almost defeats the point of coming. I broke a barrier when I got on the plane alone to come here, but I built more as soon as my feet hit this soil and the culture shock swept over me. It’s about time I dismantled those.

I have a lot of regrets from my life thus far. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past or the future or simply just a different place. I don’t want to lose my time in Japan to those same snares. I want to live these days to the fullest so that, at the end of the day, there’s nothing I wish I’d had the courage to do. If I were to leave today, I don’t think I’d be able to forgive myself for how I’ve handled this time. Which means that I instead need to spend today out, doing things I may never get a chance to do again. Today’s the only day that matters, so I won’t spend it in a way that I’ll regret.

I hope your Christmas break is relaxing. I miss you a lot. I’m looking forward to seeing you, hopefully before too much longer. Please write soon.

Sincerely,

Kestrel