We also learned more about Hamas and their policies and activities in Gaza before and after winning the 2006 elections.
One student seemed to find it particularly hard to fathom how an Islamist political movement could garner so much support from the electorate, especially when the lecturer explained how Palestinians favoured them over Fatah because they were seen as less corrupt and more Islamic. At one point the asked, "So if the women (in Gaza) choose not to wear the veil, will they go to prison or something?"
I have never felt it necessary to substantiate the lecturer's answers, which are always spot on, but this time I couldn't help mouthing an incredulous "No" at the student from across the aisle, with an Obama-response-to-nuclear-war face:
Judging by the reaction of several other students, I know I was not the only one to be disturbed by his misperception. [He later questioned Hamas's policy on educating girls, he thought they only allow girls to go to school as "tokens". The lecturer put that one straight, and said that Hamas has more women ministers than the secular coalitions, and that they are really, genuinely serious about educating girls.] If Muslim families and societies send their girls to university, it's not because this is a modern, progressive thing to do. It's because Islam puts a lot of emphasis on education for everyone alive. It's also because educating children and developing their potentials are natural and human things to do.
Why does it have to be about religion versus normality and progress? When I say I am a Muslim, it means that I try my best to live and die a Muslim. It's a state of living.
Looking back, I realise that misunderstandings about The Other is still a major, major obstacle in our interactions with people from different faiths and cultures. In most cases, it's pure ignorance. My class-mate's gross misconceptions about Islamist movements in politics/in power amazed me, but hey at least he asked about it in class. He started out with wrong ideas about a people that he doesn't know, but he's learning to change his mis-perceptions inshaAllah.
Which brings me to a piece of Tariq Ramadan's advice: Muslims, stop living under this victim mentality. "The (Western or secular) world hates us, Islam teaches us peace but people say we're terrorists, the colonial era messed up with the khilafah, etc etc." Look at ourselves, here and now. Learn from history but don't whine about how splendid the Muslim world was in the Middle Ages while losing out on our chance to make a difference. Fact is, weakness invites oppression. Develop your strengths, stop dwelling on how wrong everything else is. This is also a reminder to myself.
Stop the vicious cycle of ignorance-mistreatment-injustice, which is how unfounded misconceptions crystallise into "truths". Why are many Muslims convinced that Jews (question for you, BTW: define Jews) are all plotting to control the world? Why do some people believe that Muslim women wear the hijab because it's what Muslim men tell them to do?
So, public service announcement:
Friends and readers, the more you dislike or mistrust a person or a group, the more you should learn about them -- from their perspective. Put aside your long-held views for once [and I'm not saying this because as a history student, I'm obliged to first, and always, perceive people and events from the worldview of the individuals involved before my observer "judgments" chip in in the narrative] because every human being deserves to be understood, even if not accepted. And if you are a Muslim, remember that the Prophet SAW was sent as a rahmah for the entire universe, including the human beings you see as "enemies of Islam" -- take the effort to understand them, lest any of your hate or mistrust was based on unjust prejudices, lies, or fitnah. You hate being misunderstood? So does everyone else.