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Unveiling the truth: Muslim life on campus

By Emily Cummins, Assistant Features Editor

Everyday university students go to class, eat lunch with their friends, spend time with their clubs, and go back to their rooms to work tirelessly on their homework. This is no different when looking at students in the Gospel Choir, Newman Club, Hillel or MSA the Muslim Students Association.

Issues discussing Muslim Americans and topics like the Park 51 "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy, the banning of Shariah Law in Oklahoma and face veils and Hijab in other countries, and the pastor in Florida who wanted to burn copies of the Quran are spreading in the news like wildfire. These current events are sparking up much conversation, but what is being said?

Some people have the contention that there is this great divide between Muslim Americans and what is considered to be "everyone else," but where did this dichotomy come from? Muslims have been in America since Christopher Columbus and the original slave ships of African citizens. How is it that so many citizens do not see these people on the same level as themselves in our society?

Critics of what has been called "Islamaphobia" blame it on the fear of the other, the idea that people will generally fear something (or someone) because they do not understand it.

"This is just the nature of the beast. We will always fear the other and part of that is because the other forces us to ask questions about ourselves that we would not have asked.  When you meet the other you then ask  them ‘why do you believe what you believe' and you realize you haven't asked yourself the same question... this discomfort is very self reflective," said Dr. Hussein Rashid.

Rashid, an adjunct instructor of religion at Hofstra, founded the website Islamicate and is an Associate Editor for Religious Dispatches, an online magazine. He frequently appears on various media outlets as an expert commentator.

Rashid recognizes that Americans sometimes make the mistake of clumping all Muslims together, good or bad, and therefore label Islam with their misconceptions. This begs the question if this is something distinct to Americans or something more psychologically built in to all people.

"I think this is a broader pattern of human behavior. I think in the American context people don't know a lot about Islam and Muslims," Rashid explained.

This seems to be the general consensus that other Muslim Americans have come to as well. Sayeed Islam, a university graduate student and adjunct professor working on his PHD in Organizational Psychology, agrees that this human behavior can be linked back to heuristics. According to its definition, the term "heuristics" refers to experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning and discovery. Heuristic methods are used to identify an optimal solution as rapidly as possible.

"You make decisions about things all the time… we have to group things together. People categorize things they observe very quickly.  And it's fine in a very short term way, but in regard to policy issues and social interaction we should not take mental shortcuts. We should look to history to understand a minority within a particular group and patrician out the differences. For example there are people trying to use the ideology of Islam to push forth a violent agenda, but that doesn't represent the whole. You wouldn't use abortion doctors to describe all Christians if they were themselves Christian... It's not because people are bad or hateful it's just easy shorthand," said Sayeed Islam who is also the assistant to the Muslim Chaplain for the University Interfaith Center.

To correct this shorthand, that is turning into "Islamaphobia" and religious ignorance that refuses to recognize its ignorance, those educated in religion suggest bringing discussion of different religions into the classroom as early as the elementary level.

"For being one of the most religious nations in the world we don't have a good vocabulary to talk about religion. There should be education on religion not about Islam per se, but about religion in general starting on a secondary level," said Rashid, "It's not just about getting people interested in learning about other cultures and religions, it's about people getting curious again. People need to get excited about learning again."

Sayeed Islam agreed that education in terms of books, media, etc. is important, "but what's better is the college experience. Students at Hofstra should take advantage of this…"

 These issues are cropping up in society and affecting us on a very real and close level making conversation and debate a very good place to start. However, when it comes to these debates it is important to remember that not all Muslim Americans will agree on the same issues. Unlike the Catholic Church and various other religions, they do not have a central head of religion that unites their beliefs on current events.

When asked about Park 51 and the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy, students gave varied opinions.

"I understand why some people find it an issue of sensitivity [the building of the mosque]… While I respect their sensitivity I think it comes down to an issue of rights. It has gone from being about location to Imam questions to questions of source of money, and with that comes a lot of fear and misunderstanding," said Sayeed Islam.

"I believe they absolutely have the right to build. Most popular opponents have come to that realization and then opted for the label of sensitivity. I think it is a red herring. What level of sensitivity are we talking about? September 11 victims' families have come out both opposed and supportive.  Are we talking about the families of the 400 Mulsims who were killed that day? … I do have objections to their poor job on representing Muslims though.  Where are the Muslim voices… they do not represent the community well," said Rashid.

Other issues that affect the university and its students directly is the acceptance of wearing the Hijab or a face veil by women. Last week the MSA held an event called "From the Mouth of Muslim Women," that discussed the idea some people have that Islam oppresses women by forcing them to cover their bodies.

"This is not the case. It is a choice that brings me closer to God," said Zahra Cheema, a senior psychology student who explained that she started wearing the Hijab two years ago. "I had always wanted to wear one because I always respected and admired the women who cover themselves… men respect me more, they are less flirtatious… but people sometime treat me like a nun when I'm wearing it. I'm not a saint. I make mistakes like everyone else and that is something that is taught in Islam. You are going to make mistakes, but you can repent through God and that in the end makes you a better person," Cheema added.

Although many students understand and are tolerant of the Hijab being worn, some whispers can be heard of the girls being called "ninjas" or "death eaters" (cloaked characters featured in the Harry Potter series). To Rashid, it seems silly for there to be a debate about "a small piece of cloth when there are issues of stem cell research and moral obligations to help other Muslims in poverty" that could be debated.

When it comes to tolerance the opinions are also varied.

"At Hofstra people are pretty accepting. Hofstra people are surprised when they meet Muslims and deal with us on a day to day basis. When they see that we're everyday folks with everyday concerns I think people are surprised by that. We don't have a real agenda… we are much smaller communities that get together and just want a place to pray," said Sayeed Islam.

It may be more complicated for women who choose to cover themselves with the Hijab or a face veil. "I tried to wear the face veil for a few days. Some woman hit me with her purse and told me to get out of her country…" said Cheema with a concerned laugh.

"Ten percent of New York City is Muslim, but people say that haven't met or interacted with Muslims," Rashid explained.

This is odd. Most students will try to be open minded and tolerant of other cultures and beliefs, but how much exposure are they really open to? If you've ever eaten at a corner food cart in the city and seen the word "Halal" you have not only interacted with someone Muslim, but you have also eaten Muslim food.

The solution then seems obvious. People need to be more aware, not just tolerant. Tolerance has almost become synonymous with indifference and that does not seem helpful when it comes to the debating these current issues.

"Don't just read up on these things; get some experience… pop into our office (MSA or the University Interfaith Center). Anyone is welcome to come to our Friday prayer services at 1 pm in room 219 in the Student Center… just be open to the experience."

Fatimah expresses herself through her original artwork. (Photo Courtesy of Fatimah White)

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