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Islam on campus

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

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 8, 2001

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.

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"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.

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.