Keeping the Faith Invisible

December 7th, 2006

By Erika Spaet

Early afternoon sunlight streams through the windows of the Muller Chapel on a Friday afternoon, casting shadows behind five kneeling figures. Hidden away in this not-so-secret yet deafeningly quiet place, a sort of song saturates the air and reaches the ears of four silent worshipers.

Professor and Chair of Finance Raquib Zaman is performing the call to prayer—the adhan. Afterwards, he and four IC students participate in the jumu’ah, the traditional Muslim Friday prayer.

“As Muslims, it is our responsibility to make sure we are worshipping God in the way we are supposed to be—and worshipping only him.”

The barefooted students drink in his words. The group stands on sheets, women in the back and men in the front, and faces Mecca, the Muslim holy city. The three female students cover their hair with whatever is available—sometimes a silky cloth, sometimes a sheet, all selected from a plastic shopping bag someone routinely brings for the occasion.

The prayers are shorter than usual today because there are not many attendees. When they end, the students gather their backpacks, check their cell phones and remove the headscarves. They walk out of the chapel into the chilly autumn afternoon and head to various classes in a world that will probably not even recognize them.

“You really feel like you’re nonexistent,” says senior health science major Nuha Abdurahman.

Abdurahman is one of the girls chatting with the others on her way to a 2 p.m. class. She knows what it’s like to have to keep private the prayers that she just shared with her friends moments ago.

“A lot of people don’t know I’m a Muslim; I don’t interact with people as a Muslim,” she says. “I’ve just made a point of not saying anything unless I’m asked.”

This tacit don’t ask, don’t tell policy may seem surprising, especially at IC. For a place supposed to be a bastion for young progressives, it seems odd that a Muslim student would keep a part of her identity under wraps.

Unless, of course, Ithaca is not as open-minded as it seems.

“I feel like religion is not that much openly practiced here,” says Abdurahman. “Here, it’s very personal; people aren’t open with religion.”

Abdurahman is an international student from Ethiopia. At her high school, most of the students practiced either Orthodox Christianity or Islam, and they didn’t try to keep it a secret—far from it, she says.

“There, [Islam] was not considered a strange religion. We would pray during lunch and nobody thought it was weird. Here, I’m not comfortable asking for a break. Teachers and students won’t know what I’m talking about.”

A lack of awareness and a faith phobia are only the beginning of a larger problem that Muslims face at even the most “liberal” of colleges. Professor of politics and director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity Asma Barlas has been on the receiving end of cruel harassment.

“I’ve been on this campus for several years and every few years I encounter the incidental spitting.”

Yes, she said “spitting.”

“It isn’t written on my forehead that I’m a Muslim,” she says, “but it is written in my skin that I’m not white.”

Though Muslims may be of any color or background, race is another obstacle that many Muslim students might face. Barlas is not sure what those students were responding to—her race, her religion, or her nationality displayed by her traditional Pakistani clothing.

By and large, though, the Muslim community (if one can call it that; the number of students who self-identify and participate in jumu’ah can be counted on one hand) identifies one day as the point that sealed their doom: September 11, 2001.

“Mr. Bush keeps saying that the war isn’t against Islam and not every Muslim is a terrorist, but the fact remains that the way events—wars—are unfolding in many Muslim countries is the biggest factor,” Barlas says.

In the Summer 2001 issue of the Ithaca Quarterly (published after Sept. 11), Barlas contributed a reflection on the backlash against Muslims entitled “Why Do They Hate Us?” In her article, she encouraged Americans to not be so naïve as to ask that question, but to instead reflect on the many countries that the U.S. has occupied in recent years and ask “why do we hate them?” After the publication of this article, Barlas was attacked by readers for being anti-American and a bin Laden sympathizer.

“What discouraged me was that last year some alumni contacted the president and asked her to fire me,” she says. “People threatened to withhold money from the college, and this was several years afterward.”

“There was a lot of emotion there; people have a lot of resentment,” says Abdurahman. “But I find it strange. Especially after 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan, people could take an interest in what Muslims are about.”

Barlas recalls, though, that President Williams defended her freedom of speech against critical alumni and donors. But preventing stereotypes and opening closed minds aren’t necessarily responsibilities of the administration, say both Abdurahman and Barlas. Rather, it’s the student body that needs to wake up and be aware of the Muslim presence on campus.

Senior Erin Morrell, president of Students for a Just Peace, is one of the few non-Muslims at IC who has taken a look at the bigger picture of Muslim invisibility on campus.

“This is a time when it’s not really accepted to be a Muslim; it’s not really accepted to be Arab,” she says.

Abdurahman remembers her father warning her not to broadcast herself as a Muslim before she left Ethiopia to study at IC for fear that she would be a victim of a hate crime in a Muslim-fearing, post-Sept. 11 United States.

“[Muslims] assume that people will hate them when they come here,” she says.

But some students have tried to change this conception.

October marked the holy month of Ramadan, a period of time when Muslims fast during the day to practice self-restraint and discipline. In recognition of the most important month of the year for Muslims, Students for a Just Peace organized a community dinner for IC students, faculty and other community members. The iftaar, or breaking of the fast, was Morrell’s way of rolling out the welcome mat on behalf of IC students and encouraging Muslim students to discuss their presence on campus.

“I was very touched by that,” says Barlas.

“I recognized that there are students here who are recognizing Ramadan,” says Morrell.

“It’s a great holiday; it’s a wonderful thing. It’s too bad most students don’t even know what it is.”

“Can you imagine going to a place where no one knows what Easter or Christmas is?” says Abdurahman. “No one says ‘Happy whatever’; it feels like something is missing. Your holiday is like a normal day here.”

She points out that IC planners and other calendars published by the college don’t even mention this cornerstone of the Muslim faith. Perhaps, she adds, this is why Muslims tend not to advertise their religion in social situations.

“A lot of Muslim students don’t want to identify themselves,” she says.

Thus, Abdurahman was the only IC Muslim student to attend the dinner.

This can be attributed in part to the fear a student feels when they realize they are significantly outnumbered. Nuha’s best guess estimates that there are fewer than 20 Muslim students on campus.

“If you’re different and there aren’t people like you, you’re going to feel like, ‘OK, I’ll just keep it to myself.’”

Morrell tries to understand this apprehensiveness.

“I think that those students want to see more Muslims here. It’s going to factor into their college decision,” she says. “You know from the get-go that you’re going to be in a position where there’s not going to be a lot of people to support you.”

Whether it be for fear that they will be the victims of bigoted violence or the fear of being alone on campus, concerned students and faculty agree that the general college population needs to be more aware, and both students and the administration need to take on the onus of education.

If she could choose, one of Barlas’ first orders of business would be to sit down with the students who spit on her.

“I think a lot of this happens because too often people don’t know anything about Islam outside of what the media or textbooks say,” she says. “When the educational system and the popular media create this discourse in which people don’t see Muslims as human beings, it’s hard for them to hear different ideas.”

Morrell often gets frustrated with her peers for this same reason.

“It comes up year after year that there are instances of racial and religious intolerance. As many policies as you have in place, you’re not going to change anything,” she says. “You have to change people’s attitudes.”

Barlas is trying to do just that. As host of the year-long discussion series “Global Fury/Global Fear: Engaging Muslims,” she hopes that these kinds of issues will be put on the table. The Division of Interdisciplinary Studies and the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity held five discussions with prominent Muslim and non-Muslim professors so far this semester. More will take place in the spring.

“I’m not naïve enough to think that everyone can be reached, but at least we are providing an opportunity for people in the community to join us in critical interrogations of Islam.”

For students like Abdurahman, these dinners and discussions are the ideal place to talk about the perspectives of those whose voices go unheard in this college community. She especially appreciates when people ask her questions about her faith, but, she says, “I really have to gauge people first so I know if I can talk about it.”

On a college campus where students don’t seem afraid to talk about anything, this sounds especially strange. But students like Abdurahman and faculty like Barlas experience this invisibility, or even harassment, more often than one might think.

“I used to be kind of upset by it, but college campuses are no different than the rest of the country,” says Barlas. “Why should this campus be more open-minded than any others?”

In a post-Sept. 11 world, this is a question that all students will need to ask themselves. Some, like Morrell, already have. If IC wants to think of itself as a campus of idealists, optimists, and open-minded liberals, it may need to start rethinking its attitude toward its Muslim constituents.

Erika Spaet is a sophomore journalism major who wonders how both of her articles ended up in Upfront. Email her at espaet1@ithaca.edu.

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Copy Editors Danielle Sherwood
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Adviser Mary Beth O’Connor
   
Chief Residents Abby Bertumen
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