Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez: Muslims in the Classroom

The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture, by Elizabeth Hayes AlvarezWe welcome a guest blog post today from Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez, author of The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. Nineteenth-century America was rife with Protestant-fueled anti-Catholicism. Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez reveals how Protestants nevertheless became surprisingly and deeply fascinated with the Virgin Mary, even as her role as a devotional figure who united Catholics grew. Documenting the vivid Marian imagery that suffused popular visual and literary culture, Alvarez argues that Mary became a potent, shared exemplar of Christian womanhood around which Christians of all stripes rallied during an era filled with anxiety about the emerging market economy and shifting gender roles.

In a previous post, Alvarez wrote about Pope Francis’s 2015 visit to Philadelphia. In today’s post, she responds to anti-Muslim rhetoric on the campaign trail with a look inside her multi-religious classroom. 


Donald Trump’s suggested ban on Muslims entering the United States and the creation of a Muslim “registry” has been widely (and wisely) condemned. But from my perspective in the classroom, I see how the ideas are already affecting young people. Amid the rows of Catholics, Jews, agnostics, and evangelicals in my religion courses sit dozens of students hailing from the Middle East and South Asia. Their presence is a very good thing. Like most of my students, they are open, curious, and eager to learn. And they are baffled and intimidated by Trump’s rhetoric.

This past year American universities hosted 975,000 foreign students, with approximately 60,000 coming from Saudi Arabia, 9,000 from Kuwait, and 11,000 from Iran. Studying in the United States is both an opportunity and a challenge for them. All young people who travel to other parts of the world to attend college are brave. They are away from home, often for the first time, learning in a non-native language at an institution with different academic and cultural conventions. American education institutions have reassured them that they will be welcomed and supported.

It’s a privilege to watch young adults find their voices, ask questions, share experiences, and reason together. In a climate of increasing violence and fear, moments of understanding and mutual recognition matter. Like my other students, some of my international Muslim students are not religious, others are; some don’t want to talk about their own faith, others do. But over the last few years, these students have sat down for conversations with Reform rabbis and Catholic priests, posed for photos in front of altars and bimahs, and reminded their classmates again and again that they are “people of the book” who honor the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and his mother Mary. They make comparisons and try to build bridges of understanding. Maybe, they ask, Lent and Ramadan are both times of self-denial and penance? Maybe we all attend services for community support as well as to worship and pray?

They also patiently explain their own struggles to show their faith on campus and in the city. My American-born Muslim students compare their own experiences, teasing out anti-Arab racism from anti-Muslim discrimination. And all my students benefit from hearing their stories first-hand: the time someone yelled “go back to your own country” to my American-born student in her hijab; the time a stranger called the police to report “suspicious persons” when my foreign-born students visited a church as part of an assignment I gave them. My students wonder, then, if the media is fomenting fear, increasing the likelihood of similar incidents.

In response, I tell them America’s story. They recognize today’s rhetoric and climate of fear in accounts of the anti-Irish, anti-Catholic Bible riots of 1854. But they also recognize something precious in the history of contested and hard-won religious freedom, and the activism, democratic participation, and journalistic courage that led to our nation’s thriving diversity. But its harder to make this story meaningful when one of our leading presidential candidates and other politicians are literally rallying people to fear and reject members of our classroom community because of their religion.

Every campus that hosts international students and every teacher that helps students recognize mutual human concerns and learn civil discourse fulfills the mission of a university. When the U.S. government consigned Japanese families to confinement camps during World War II, my alma mater, Wellesley College, sheltered its Japanese students on campus. Today, across the country, religion departments continue to fulfill this mission by presenting the complicated, rich histories of religious communities—stories that expose as false the narrow, reductionist narratives that both radical Islamist groups and anti-Muslims spin.

This is a crucial moment. American Muslims must be supported and embraced in a religiously free society; and young international Muslim students must know they are welcomed. Our young people’s willingness to know and be known offers our best path forward. Right in front of my eyes, I watch worldviews expand and compassionate engagement develop. I’m grateful for the vantage and wish, sometimes, there was a window into my classroom so others could see in.

Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez is assistant professor of religion at Temple University. Her book The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture is now available. Follow her on Twitter @hayesalvarez.