Editor’s Note: Americans United recently concluded its annual essay contest for high school juniors and seniors. We’re pleased to say that nearly 600 entries were received. The winning essay this year was drafted by Rimpal Bajwa, a senior at Puyallup High School in Puyallup, Wash. Bajwa received a scholarship prize of $1,500. You can read more about Bajwa here.
The second-place winner was Anastasia Hendricks, a senior at Cottonwood Classical Preparatory School in Albuquerque. She received a $1,000 prize.
Third place was taken by Ariel Hall, a senior at Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Hall received $500.
(Photo: AU student essay contest winners from left: First-place winner Rimpal Bajwa, second-place winner Anastasia Hendricks and third-place winner Ariel Hall.)
Thanks to all who entered! Church & State is pleased to print Bajwa’s winning essay:
As a Sikh Indian-American, I have witnessed the extent of religious discrimination, whether it be the countless attempts to undermine the legitimacy of my religion or the constant pressure to fit the Anglo-conformity model. But this past year has been different, in the worst way possible. Attacks on minority religions have become even more extreme and overt. In fact, the leader of the free world who serves as the face of the most powerful country has endorsed banning people from entering certain countries. It is no coincidence that the countries under attack are Muslim-majority countries, giving the proposed ban its notorious name: the Muslim ban.
The Muslim ban is, in my opinion, the greatest threat to church-state separation not just in the past year but in my entire lifetime. I lived through the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and saw my parents being mistaken for Muslims, which prompted many verbal attacks, but never before have I seen such a rallying cry for undisguised religious discrimination.
A powerful leader is openly endorsing a policy in the media that is born of prejudice and fear in the pretense of national security. By pushing for such a ban, the president is attacking one of the fundamental rights of our country: religious freedom. He is setting a dangerous precedent that discrimination on the sole basis of religion is acceptable, a precedent that could destabilize American society in the future.
As a member of a minority religion, I have refused to idly sit by and watch the president establish a standard of Anglo-conformity. I may not be personally affected by the Muslim ban, but I know that I can use my voice to help others practice their beliefs freely. Because of this, I decided to prepare my oratory piece for debate on conformity and the pressure immigrants face to assimilate.
In my speech, I touch upon the harmful stereotypes that people assign to Islam, which results in alienation and pressure to conform. But then I explain the beauty of diversity, whether it be racial or religious, in an attempt to persuade those listening that there is not just one right standard to adhere to. I hope to spread my message of acceptance to an even greater audience in Denver, where I have qualified to perform my oratory at the National Individual Events Tournament of Champions.
One barrier I have often run into is fear, which is produced by harmful stereotypes. People often see Islam as a religion of violence, when it is truly a religion of peace. They see Muslim religious symbols, such as the hijab, as oppression, when it really represents decency and modesty. They think that radicalized groups represent the entire religion when in reality they are just anomalies. They are afraid of the unknown because they have only been taught to be afraid when they should’ve been taught to love.
There is a lot more we can do as a society to combat this religious discrimination. According to Newsweek, the latest polls show how Muslims are feared and distrusted as a group in America. Almost half of those 65 and older believe that Muslims in America support extremism, whereas only a few college-educated adults do so.
The racist, xenophobic agenda that is producing the fear and distrust is leading to a surge in hate crimes. According to the FBI, hate crimes against Muslims for 2016 show a second straight year of increases – the first time that’s happened in a decade. It means that in the last two years, the number of reported hate crimes has risen by nearly 12 percent.
In order to combat these troubling statistics, we can empower Muslim voices to help them dispel rumors about their faith and provide factual information about their religion. We can also stop labeling only Muslims as terrorists. The federal code defines “domestic terrorism” in part as “activities that appear intended to affect the conduct of government by mass destruction.” By this definition, Stephen Paddock, a white Christian man, was a terrorist, but he was not labeled as a terrorist—he was called a “lone wolf.”
Nowhere in the definition of terrorist does it say that only a Muslim can be a terrorist. So why does the media only label Muslims as terrorists? When President Donald Trump signed his executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, he claimed it was to protect the country from “radical Islamic terrorists.” When Americans constantly see the word terrorist always accompanied by the word Muslim or Islamic, they begin to always associate those two together.
The word “terrorist” has a potent force associated with it and is exclusively used to describe people of one religion. That is how Islamophobia started. That is why Islamophobia exists. That is how Islamophobia spreads. We may not think we discriminate according to religion, but sometimes we subconsciously do. Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal once said, “America didn’t create religious liberty. Religious liberty created America.” We must remember the values that our nation was built upon. Instead of openly attacking members of a religion, we should learn to appreciate and respect their religion. We need to live, learn, and love to make America accepting again.