Islam on campus

In the limelight, Muslim students embrace pro-active role.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Rasha Madkour came from the Middle East to the US last year to study journalism at the University of Texas, she was worried that the environment might dilute her faith. She found in the Muslim Student Association (MSA) on campus the reassuring support and sense of community that she needed.

"I have a lot of non-Muslim friends," she says, "but you need to grow spiritually, and it's a comfort base that reminds you what is important in life."

Samir Qureshi was born and raised in Miami, but the MSA at Florida International University is just as important to him as a place to foster unity and a strong sense of Muslim identity within American society.

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Yet as Muslim groups at hundreds of colleges and universities across the country work to create the Islamic umma (community), the devastating events of Sept. 11 have propelled many of them in a fresh direction - into a more active and visible presence on campus and in the broader community.

Both the challenge of responding to misperceptions and questioning of Islamic teachings and the explosion of interest in the faith on the part of churches, schools, and the media are spurring a new sense of purpose and vitality among local groups and the national MSA network.

All of a sudden, "there is this need to be less introverted and do much more outreach," says Altaf Husain, president of the national Muslim Students Association, which has affiliated chapters across the US and Canada.

And the demand has led some leaders to don the mantle of spokespersons for a new generation of Muslims, whose outlook is more grounded in the American landscape than that of their immigrant parents.

"The MSA is becoming more empowered in the aftermath of Sept. 11," suggests Arsalan Iftikhar, a law student at Washington University in St. Louis who is also the Midwest communications director for the Council of American-Islamic Relations. "It has allowed us to take a leadership role in the community."

Members of his MSA have spoken to churches and other community groups, and last weekend they received training on how to teach elementary school students about Islam.

"It's very important to get out to the children," Mr. Iftikhar says. "Otherwise they may grow up to have resentful feelings toward a large part of the world population." The MSA will send letters out to all area schools to let them know of the Muslim students' availability.

In the week of the terrorist attacks, MSA chapters initiated blood drives, interfaith prayer vigils, campus security details, and teach-ins on Islam as part of the healing process. And the national MSA issued a statement condemning the attackers and their tactics.

"Students saw an immediate need for a wholehearted condemnation to leave no room for misunderstanding," explains Mr. Husain, a doctoral student in social work at Howard University in Washington.

Exercising the right to speak out

More recently, the national body has come out in opposition to the bombing of Afghanistan, with a more forceful statement than those of national Muslim organizations run by the older leadership, which disappointed many students.

As Americans, students feel no less patriotic for exercising their right to dissent from government policy, Husain says. The group believes the US should commit to other international instruments of justice, such as tribunals, which, he adds, are gaining global support and a track record, with the trials of Slobodan Milosevic and others.

Yet many students also recognize that their responsiblity to speak out goes beyond US policy.

"There are governments in Muslim countries that do things that are fundamentally against the tenets of Islam," says Alisa Khan, a freshman in the Harvard Islamic Society in Cambridge, Mass. "Part of being Muslim is standing up for truth and justice wherever that may lie."

Raising Islamic awareness

As they continue to receive requests for speakers and e-mails questioning Islamic teachings, many MSAs are expanding their annual Islamic Awareness Week, often held in November, to introduce the faith to the campus community. the national MSA urged local groups to plan a full month of activities this year, suggesting the theme of "moderation, toleration, and spiritual elevation."

On his Florida campus, Mr. Qureshi's MSA has scheduled events throughout November, including an "Islam 101" program, film showings, a presentation on Islamic art and architecture, and a panel discussion with American converts to Islam, which include a Hispanic woman, a Jewish professor, and a US marine.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the association will kick off a series of events tomorrow by holding their Friday prayer gathering outdoors in front of the student center, says Fadilah Khan, a senior from Michigan who is the group's vice president. Throughout the next week, they'll distribute free Korans and literature describing various aspects of Isam, as well as hold a campus lecture.

With Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, beginning in mid-November, some societies are inviting others to join them in breaking the fast at sunset. "We'll have three iftar dinners, one for faculty members, one for other religious groups, and one for the general student body," says Ms. Khan. "They'll include a student presentation and a town hall discussion."

The Harvard society has plans for opening several iftar dinners to the public, says Wasim Quadir, the group's vice president, and will also present a program showcasing the range of cultures that Islam spans, in the hopes of countering "the stereotype that all Muslims are Arab and all Arabs are Muslim."

Some now see the opportunity to share more deeply with Americans the Islamic traditions of poetry, music, and mystical literature. After all, says Osman Handoo, a Harvard law student from Missouri, the best-selling poet in the US is none other than the famous Sufi, Jalal al-Din Rumi.

"Many people in the US, especially youths, are starving for ... spirituality," Mr. Handoo says. "One of my projects is to expose people to the beauty of the Islamic spiritual tradition."

Spirituality arises in the conversation of students on several campuses, and at Friday prayers last week at Harvard, the sermon emphasized its importance. "Be in the world as if you were a stranger," was the theme of Aamir Rehman, the 1999 graduate who often serves as the society's prayer leader.

The MSAs are a wholly student-run organization, and those with in-depth knowledge of the Koran volunteer to serve as prayer leaders and give the weekly sermon. The groups also hold weekly halaqas, or Islamic study circles, as well as a range of social and educational gatherings. The full participation of women as officers as well as members is a reality in many groups, though it remains highly controversial in others.

Most influential group in the US

Formed in 1963 to serve the needs of international students studying in the US and Canada, the MSA grew rapidly into the strongest and most influential Muslim body in America - the only one bridging national and ethnic divisions. It maintained strong ties to the political movements in Muslim societies.

As many immigrants settled down here, the group spawned a host of related organizations. It created Muslim medical, scientific, engineering, and business and professional associations; the North American Islamic Trust, which handles financial and investment services; Muslim youth camps; and educational publishing ventures.

In 1981, the Islamic Society of North America was created to take over the umbrella role of the MSA, enabling it to refocus on its original purpose. As the Muslim student population has grown, independent MSAs have also sprung up. About 500 groups exist in the US and Canada.

Now the national and local groups are run largely by young people born in America or raised here from an early age.

More savvy about the workings of the US system, some are eager and confident about playing a role in political life, though this remains a controversial issue in the broader Muslim community.

Many MSAs have begun to develop what Husain calls "strategic alliances" with other campus groups, some faith-based and some issue-oriented. Still attentive to the issues confronting Muslim societies elsewhere in the world, they work, for example, on pressing humanitarian concerns related to the refugees from Afghanistan and to the Palestinian cause.

At their regular conferences, there is a focus on the issues that affect their daily lives, such as reconciling the norms of American college life with their non-dating, nondrinking lifestyle, or how to strengthen their faith while away from a supportive family.

Since they do not date, MSA networking is the way many meet their future spouses.

Through the Internet and regional and national conferences, young Muslims have developed a vigorous communications network on issues of importance to them.

Their growing voice, and the experiences in the aftermath of Sept. 11, Iftikhar suggests, could soon signal a passing of the torch to a new generation of leaders.

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