Students Reflect on First Muslim Woman in Pennsylvania House of Rep

For many American Muslim students, the hateful atmosphere surrounding the election of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives first Muslim woman is not a new thing.

“To be honest, situations like that are ones Muslims face daily. Since they misunderstand the religion, they fear Muslims and in turn act hateful towards Muslims,” Emaan Bhutta, president of the Muslim Students’ Association at Penn State University (PSU), told The Collegian.

“Our religion teaches us to be peaceful and friendly, so even in a situation where a Muslim is being intimidated and targeted like Johnson- Harrell was, Muslims are taught to remain calm and not react in an aggressive manner.

“In cases like this, it is important that Muslims ‘Take the high road’ as Johnson-Harrell did because she was serving as a representative of Muslims in that situation,” she added.

Bhutta was talking about the historic moment in which Democrat Movita Johnson-Harrell was about to be sworn in as Pennsylvania’s first Muslim state representative.

The moment was overshadowed by a controversial prayer given before a voting session on April 1 that was heavily based in Christian principles and rhetoric.

“The false things people uneducated about Islam believe can cause them to act in ways such as Rep. Stephanie Borowicz did. The news can alter people’s misconstrued perceptions of the religion, as well,” Bhutta said.

She was referring to Borowicz’s usage of the word “Jesus” 13 times in her swearing-in prayer which was later criticized by Johnson-Harrell and other members of the House.

Borowicz’s remarks were denounced by a number of Pennsylvania state representatives, including House Minority Leader Frank Dermody and Minority Whip Jordan Harris.

Although Jesus is considered a prophet from Allah in Islam and Muslims have to believe in his prophecy to be believers in the Islamic faith, Johnson-Harrell said “Borowicz’s remarks and opening prayer blatantly represented the Islamophobia that exists among some leaders. I thought that for the most part, the entire invocation was offensive.”

On his behalf, Rafay Nasir, president of the Penn State College Independents, shared Bhutta’s sentiments, and said: “the only way to make societal progress is to allow diverse people in power to be seen in the same light as those who have a longer history of influence.”

“As much as it hurts me to say this about my home state, Pennsylvania is an [abhorrent and] racist state, as crystal clear by our current elected officials. A Muslim congresswoman from Philadelphia is an important step to recognizing this massive issue. This will absolutely help bring important issues regarding race to the state level.”

Though there are no official estimates, the US is home to an estimated Muslim minority of six to eight million.

American Muslims see rising Islamophobia as a major obstacle to their daily life.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a leading Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, said that anti-Muslim discrimination incidents and hate crimes increased in the third quarter of 2018 by 83 and 21 percent respectively, compared with the first quarter.

During 2018, CAIR documented more than 1,000 reports of potential bias incidents. The numbers include situations involving various government agencies.