In my last weeks at Wichita State University, where I had taught Comparative Religion for a quarter of a century, I had an unnerving experience. This was in a night class, in which I typically had a scattering of Muslim students. After I had dismissed the class, a Muslim man in his thirties or early forties came up to me to discuss some matter or other. After I had answered his questions, I asked him if he was living in an off-campus apartment that was known to house a good number of Muslim students—at least, I’d say, one hundred or so. “Oh no!” he said. “The people over there hate America.”
As it happened, it was getting late, and so I suggested that we continue our conversation after our next class. He agreed, and left. And he never returned.
Because the semester had only a few weeks left and because I was in the midst of planning my very early retirement, I never tried to get in touch with this man, though in retrospect I came to regret that I’d not continued our exchange, or at least inquired about his later whereabouts.
That was six years before 9/11. I later had a conversation with a WSU assistant dean with whom I was on friendly terms. We discussed my experience and the subsequent American tragedy from which America has scarcely recovered. I had heard that one of the chief organizers of the attack was Mohammed Atta, who had supposedly entered the U.S. on a student visa to attend WSU but had never set foot on the campus. (I don’t know if this hearsay was accurate, though I have read that Evad Ismoil, the driver of the explosive-laden van used in the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, had “entered the country on a student visa to attend Wichita State University” but had subsequently dropped out. See https://www.numbersusa.com/content/news/october-21-2012/foiled-terror-plot-exposes-vulnerability-student-visa-system.html. NumbersUSA for Lower Immigration Levels.) I had also heard that when the airplanes hit the tower on that fateful morning, the apartment building in which those America-haters lived exploded with cheers.
My friend concluded with the observation that subsequent to 9/11, the FBI had come to campus to investigate and had found (apparently) nothing.
I should say more about my earlier experiences with Muslim students. It was not uncommon to have Muslims in my daytime introductory courses; in one class, I recall that out of the group of thirty to forty students, five or six bore the name of Mohammed. I had initially designed the course with no mention of Islam but was forced to add a short section on Islam by the fervid requests of my Muslim students. I was never comfortable with this arrangement, because it was clear to me that many of them wished to have me treat their religion as The Truth, not as one alternative among many, as I always treated the other religions. Incidentally, I’ve learned that even non-Islamic professors with a specialty in Islam have to be very careful about how and what they say in their specialized courses that treat Islam and only Islam.
Of course one shouldn’t paint all the members of a group with the same brush. There are always differences. Some of my Muslim students were fervid believers—I recall the time one of them opined, in class, that Salman Rushdie deserved to die because his Satanic Verses dishonored The Prophet. Others were apparently quite secular—the image of a young, beautiful, burka-less woman in a tight blouse openly flirted with a series of young Muslim men as I was preparing to lecture.
Next blog. What I conclude from my experiences with Muslim students over a period of ten years.