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Muslim at U.Va.: a religion, an identity

Students reflect on Muslim experience in a college setting

In the wake of the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, University students commemorated the tragedy in a variety of ways. Nearly 1,000 students gathered around the Ampitheater to participate in a candlelight vigil, and Sustained Dialogue hosted an interfaith dialogue to share experiences about the events. Some students had not previously been exposed to Islam, while others came to debunk stereotypes about the religion. Given this dialogue - and misconceptions concerning the recent alleged bias incident at Beta Bridge - The Cavalier Daily examines Muslim students' experiences at the University.

A Muslim identity\nFor students at the University, the term "Muslim" can mean many different things. For some it conjures images of a culture of their parents' generation.

But for many Muslim students, their religion is more than just a faith. It's a way of life, a culture and an identity.

"We're not all one person," fourth-year Engineering student Dalia Deak said. "It's a spectrum of people with different opinions and different approaches to life. That's the danger of racial profiling, trying to boil it down and categorize people based on the actions."

Second-year College student Fatima Mohammed said her faith is "reflected in everything" she does.

"I pray five times a day," Mohammed said. "It's something that I always remember. It's a daily routine. It's something that I always think about - not a bunch of rules - just a way of living right."

Resources for Muslim students\nJulie Roa, multicultural student services program coordinator in the Office of the Dean of Students, and her office connect Muslim students with resources Muslim practices can demand. For example, Roa helped the Muslim Student Association work with University Dining to obtain Plus Dollar reimbursements for unused meal swipes during the month of Ramadan, a time when many Muslim students fast during the day.

Roa also helps Muslim students pair up for housing.

"There are a lot of cultural practices that make it difficult for random assignments," Roa said.

Roa credited the MSA for its work ensuring needs of Muslim students at the University are met.

"MSA has been very proactive about gathering information and digesting it," Roa said. "We just help them organize," she said.

For example, the MSA worked to establish a meditation room located in a Lawn pavilion, since Islam traditionally requires five prayers a day.

Islam in the classroom\nAsst. Religious Studies Prof. Ahmed al-Rahim said it is difficult to generalize why students take his classical Islam course and other Islamic classes.

"My sense is it has to do with curiosity about the other, and Islam has received a lot of attention in the media," al-Rahim said. "I think students honestly want to understand what Islamic history is about."

Al-Rahim said some students of Muslim backgrounds take courses in Islam in hopes of confirming or challenging their faith.

But, he added, "I don't even know who's Muslim in my class. Who knows?"

Dr. A. Obiedat, a lecturer of Arabic language and culture, noted the importance of studying Arabic - a language many Muslims are familiar with because it is the language of the Koran, Islam's main sacred text.

"Studying [the] language of the third largest nation in the world facilitates international relations and cultural exchange and adventure for students," Obiedat said.

Fourth-year College student Quratul Ain said she decided to pursue a minor in religious studies after taking a course in classical Islam.

"It made me more aware of what I practice," Ain said. "It makes you realize how strong you want your faith to be and where you want to go with your faith."

Wearing the hijab\nAfter learning about her faith in an academic environment, Ain decided to come back this school year wearing a hijab for the first time.

"It's just a sign of modesty, and if you feel that you're ready for it, it's a huge decision," Ain said. "It will change your outlook; people won't perceive you the same way."

Mohammed, a Muslim student of African descent, said she came from a high school in which the students were more diverse than those at the University. She was proud to say nobody at her high school called her hijab a scarf.

"I felt like so many people [at the University] didn't know what a hijab was," Mohammed said. "I kind of style mine according to how I feel; some people thought I was wearing it for a fashion sense ... [others] assume that since I'm covered, I'm super-conservative."

Second-year College student Sara Almousa said she has never worn a hijab. She is blonde and blue-eyed, and "people are shocked" to find out she is Muslim, Almousa said.

"Obviously I do stick out because I don't have any Middle Eastern or Muslim qualities ... but it's pretty apparent once you get to know me," she said. "I am proud to be Muslim. As long as you're comfortable with yourself and you're proud of who you are and where you come from, then you can be put in any situation and be comfortable."

Coming to the University\nSome Muslim students said they experienced culture shock first arriving at the University.

Almousa, for example, attended an all-girls Islamic school for her entire life.

"[I was] very sheltered in my schooling," Almousa said. "I've never had to explain my religion. Coming into U.Va. I was skeptical, [but] what I found was that people were very welcoming and respecting."

Deak said she finds most students are curious and she is "pretty happy to share anything" with those who are less informed about her religion. "People are pretty receptive," she said.

Fourth-year College student Omer Abdulhamid said Muslims at the University are like any other minority group.

"They feel comfortable when they're amongst people who are like them," he said. "[It] may seem like they are not assimilating well, but we do make friends who are non-Muslims."

Most students interviewed said they have never felt marginalized or discriminated against while at the University, and they feel they have the same resources as any other student.

But some students mentioned an instance in which they felt isolated in this community. They said during the 2008-09 school year, the Burke Society, a conservative group on Grounds, hosted writer David Horowitz, who came under fire for his statements about Islam and Muslim student groups.

"He asserted that Muslim student associations were linked to Islamic jihad terrorist organizations in the Middle East," Deak said. She said this was the only time she felt truly marginalized at the University.

"Coming from a small Islamic high school I was very excited about the openness and different opinions," Deak said. "To encounter a speaker like that so early on in my years here was a very formative experience."

Islam and the Middle East\nAlthough Middle Eastern and Muslim students may often be lumped in the same category, the two are distinct groups.

"Often times in the mind of the West, the terms 'Middle Eastern,' 'Arab' and 'Muslim' are interchangeable and it's kind of fuzzy," Deak said. "Religion and culture are very closely intertwined [so] it's hard to separate them."

This distinction became clear last month when the student group Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine painted the slogan "Palestine deserves a state" on Beta Bridge after the leader of the Palestinian Authority submitted a bid for statehood to the United Nations. Hours later they found the word "'Palestine"' defaced and the word "'deserves"' crossed out.

SPJP filed a Bias Incident Report after they found their message marred.

Muslim Student Association President Andaleeb Rahman declined to officially comment on the incident.

"We don't want to get involved in political situation involving Palestine or Israel, and we don't take an official standpoint," Rahman said. "Our stance is: if it's political debate, we don't really want to get involved."

Roa also declined to comment on the incident. She said the incident doesn't relate to Muslims since the incident was political rather than religious in nature.

"A lot of people overlap and equate the two," Roa said. "There is an overlap [between Middle Eastern students and the Muslim faith], but it's important to keep in mind that the groups are not one in the same."

Indeed, not all who hail from the Middle East are Muslim, Deak pointed out. "There are Christians, there are Jews, there are atheists," she said.

Mohammed expressed difficulty with the conflation of Middle Eastern and Muslim. Though she is of African descent, she said she is often mistaken for Arab.

"Sometimes people automatically assume that I'm Arab," Mohammed said. "When I'm struggling [in Arabic class] people say, aren't you Arab? I say no, I'm African."

Al-Rahim described the American Muslim experience as flexible for different individuals.

"You can read and pick and choose and take up certain forms of belief that you're interested in," al-Rahim said, "and you're really free to do that"

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