The Sewanee we want to be: Usra Ghazi’s visit sparks dialogue on campus

Usra Ghazi speaks to a gathered audience in McGriff alumni house. Photo by Mandy Moe Pwint Tu (C’21).

By Vanessa Moss
Executive Staff

Almost thirty students, faculty, and community members stood together on Monday, March 25 to honor the lives lost in the Christchurch mosque shootings that occurred March 15. The group gathered in front of the McGriff alumni house, with service opened by a Muslim prayer from Yousra Hussain (C’22). The crowd stood silently while the victims’ names were read, the muffled bells of Breslin tower quietly punctuating the list, while fog gained to a soft rain and the group shuffled inside.

The remembrance closed with an opportunity for all students to write notes of solidarity to Muslim communities in Chattanooga and Murfreesboro, with final remarks from Hussain: “I hope that through this suffering, this pain, and this hatred we will all find relief… Relief in the form of love, of solidarity, of bravery. Instead of letting what happened weaken our faith, let us strengthen it; and instead of letting what happened make us afraid, let us be brave.”

The crowd grew to over 50 by the start of Usra Ghazi’s discussion, “Reckoning with Thomas Jefferson: Race, Religion, and the America We Want to Be.” Ghazi’s visit was arranged by her former colleague Cassie Meyer, director of Sewanee’s Dialogue Across Difference program, and politics professor, Jessica Mecellem.

As the Director of Policy and Programs at America Indivisible, Usra Ghazi’s work focuses on strengthening Muslim visibility and fighting anti-Muslim prejudice: “We connect them to their neighbors and their local government so that local government knows how best to serve Muslim communities.”

“I am a Pakistani-American Muslim person,” she started, “and very early on I got the idea that America is a Christian, white country.”

For Ghazi and her family, American identity was synonymous with Christian identity. Her personal accounts, bolstered by international examples of religion and political prejudices, supported her first take-away point for the evening: “Race, religion, and national identity are totally, inextricably linked.”

As acts of terror became increasingly common in the 1990s and onward, fear was elevated within Ghazi’s home. “The reason why we were fearful was because we knew that in the news people were being told stories about who Muslims are, what they look like, and how they act.”

“Our stories have social and political power,” Ghazi emphasized, identifying another key theme for her presentation. Those negative stories of Muslim communities were perpetuated through news and media, with little representation of actual Muslim-American narratives.

“We connect Islamophobia to the fact that in most national polls, a majority of Americans claim never to have spoken to a Muslim person, to not know any Muslim people, and we know that most americans are exposed to inauthentic narratives about these people through our media and content consumption.”

Ghazi’s final call to action was “that we listen for the untold stories and challenge what we are told when stories don’t reflect reality.” With that purpose, the crowd was broken up into small discussion groups as an opportunity to identify political and cultural shortcomings in modern America, and to articulate what their “ideal modern America” looks like.

As part of Meyer’s “Living Room Conversations” series through the Dialogue Across Difference program, many conversations honed in from America to Sewanee by students and faculty, talking over disappointments, hopes, and expectations for Sewanee, now and in the future.