Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Islam Awareness Week at the University of Virginia

Inside Islam
As Islam Awareness Week begins, Muslim students reflect on life at the University
Jenna Wandres
Cavalier Daily Staff Writer

Sam Stollar Cavalier Daily
Students who attended the Islam Awareness Week kick-off event heard from Imam Siraj Wahajj, who spoke on the recent cartoon controversies depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
When most Americans hear the word "Islam," chances are good that they immediately think of several strong images and phrases. Perhaps they picture an arid desert village crawling with soldiers. Maybe they hear words like "jihad," "fundamentalist" or "terrorism." Maybe they see a replay of a plane crashing into a skyscraper in a plume of smoke and flames.
While the media has popularized these perceptions of Islam, the organizers of Islam Awareness Week feel these stereotypes couldn't be more untrue for the majority of Muslims. While the center of military conflict regarding these issues is in the Middle East, there is a different front of the conflict, some Muslim students feel, which is present right here at the University: the struggle of American Muslims to embrace their faith in the midst of a Western culture that misunderstands them.
Islam is the third-largest religion in the United States, and its number of American adherents is growing faster than any other religion. This trend is evident in the University community as well, according to third-year College student Umair Javed, president of the Muslim Student Association. Javed estimates the number of Muslims at the University to be in the low hundreds.
"We're not a very large group, but we are growing every year," he said. "We work to build a support structure for Muslim students by doing things like trying to find rooms around Grounds where Muslims can do their five daily prayers and trying to bring Halaal food to dining halls."
The MSA also recently formed a Muslim Alumni Association, through which Islamic graduates ofthe University can network with present students to share resources, advice and fellowship. Some Muslims at the University, however, are also faced with issues that are not as tangible to solve.
Hassan Tahmir, a fourth-year Commerce student, discussed the difficulties of being a religious Muslim while immersed in a secular society that he feels misunderstands him.
"Islam is a very peaceful religion, based strongly on trust and community," he said. "A lot of times, people see and hear about terrorists and other Islamic groups and make the assumption that all Muslims believe the same thing. Just as Baptists, Methodists and Mormons are all considered Christians, there are different groups that hold different Islamic beliefs."
First-year College student Nazia Chowdhury expressed her frustration with the misconceptions surrounding jihad, an Arabic term literally translated as "striving in the way of God."
"Jihad can be anything from inwardly trying to become a better person to an [armed] struggle fought in defense of Islam," she said. "People, especially the American media, don't understand that in order for true armed jihad to be established, there is a long process with lots of different rules and standards that must apply."
According to a recent MSA project, misconceptions such as these about Islam are fairly common among University students. The project, a documentary, addressed the question, "what is the perception of Islam amongst U.Va. students?"
According to Javed, the results of the project were grim.
"Overall, we found that non-Muslim students don't have a basic knowledge of what Islam is," Javed said. "U.Va. students did have an impressive knowledge of the politics surrounding Islam and had strong opinions about what Muslim countries should be doing, but they had no knowledge of the religion itself."
Tahir said this lack of knowledge is usually the root of anti-Muslim sentiment.
"People don't understand Islam, and they can't understand the Islamic people without understanding their religion," he said.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, Muslim communities in America have faced a diverse realm of reactions. Waves of hate crimes, harassment and assaults on Islamic people and businesses spiked drastically in late 2001 and have been intermittent since then around the United States.
However, the University community has generally responded in a calmer manner.
"After Sept. 11, people began asking a lot of questions about Islam, with a desire to learn and see it as a peaceful religion," Javed said. "More and more people are seeking to learn about our faith and practices, in order to understand what is going on in the world with an unbiased perspective."
To combat this general ignorance, the MSA has set March 20 through March 30 aside as "Islam Awareness Week," with a theme of "The Many Faces of Islam." This week is meant to show another side of Islam than is usually portrayed in the media and to let the Muslim voice be heard around Grounds.
"We want the student body to hear about controversial issues directly from Muslims," Javed explained. "We want everybody to realize that Islam is broader than what they hear in class and encompasses all areas of life."
Chowdhury said she thinks this week will be a good opportunity for the University community to learn about Islam but, mostly, to recognize that Muslims are a peaceful, God-centered group.
"Our God is the same God as the Christian God and the Jewish God," she said. "Many of us say, 'In'sh'Allah' almost every time we have a conversation, which means, 'If God wills it."
A tight-knit community
"Before I came to U.Va., I wasn't sure what to expect," Chowdhury said. "I wasn't sure if I would be able to fit in and find all the resources I would need. I was scared I would have to be stuck on a crazy vegetarian diet or something."
While the transition from home to college can be difficult for many Muslim students, it is made a lot easier by an extensive support network of both peers and the Charlottesville community.
"Once I got here and I realized how many resources are available to Muslims, I haven't had a very hard time adjusting at all," Chowdhury said.
Tahmir expressed similar sentiments about his experiences at the University, especially during the month of Ramadan.
"During Ramadan, [Muslims] fast during the daylight hours," he said. "It's a month that is intended for us to grow closer to God, but in the process, we are able to grow closer to each other, too."
During Ramadan, the MSA sponsors events such as community fast-breaking after sunset, as well as an IHOP breakfast at 4 a.m.
As a community, Javed said they strive to take advantage of available resources as much as possible. In addition to hosting events with religious studies professors Abdulaziz Sachedina and Timothy Gianotti as key speakers, the Muslim community also gives back to Charlottesville by participating in Habitat for Humanity builds and tutoring young Muslim students at local public schools.
"One of the things we're trying to do is integrate the Muslim identity into the University," Javed said. "And one of the best things about ... U.Va. is that we have the opportunity to work with and learn together with so many different groups."

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