From Friday, January 29th to Thursday, February 4th, the Muslim Student Association (MSA) is hosting several events as part of the MSA Islam Awareness Week (IAW) program. Each IAW event seeks to enrich the public's understanding of a generally misunderstood and unknown religion. A recent Gallup survey found that a majority of Americans view Islam unfavorably; even while a majority of those respondents admitted that "they didn't know anything about" or knew "just a little about [Islam]", according to an article on the survey published in the Austin Statesman.
Incidents like the Fort Hood massacre and the foiled Christmas Day terrorist attack have a double impact on Muslims. In addition to having to face the tragedy of the loss or endangerment of innocent lives, Muslims, particularly in the West, have to brace for the consequent backlash in the national media and local communities. While I am blessed to never have been the victim of religious discrimination, I know this is not the case for many American Muslims. I remember hearing a story on NPR's "This American Life" a while back about an elementary school child in New Jersey. The girl, a Muslim, could not cope with being taunted and ostracized by her classmates after 9/11, and decided to renounce Islam, thinking that this gesture would appease her peers and allow her to fit in.
This is one of the myths that the Rice MSA hopes to debunk during IAW: that being a Muslim prohibits one from integrating into a pluralistic society like we have here in America.
During Tuesday's "World Food Fair," students will be able to get a taste of the diverse flavors of the Muslim world from Morocco to Malaysia. The fair was inspired by a project undertaken by a group of Muslim friends in New York called "30 Mosques in 30 days." These friends decided to break their fast in a different mosque in New York City for each night of the holy month of Ramadan. They maintained a blog with journal entries and pictures of their trips to mosques representing immigrant Muslim communities from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to Jamaica and Albania.
Despite the diversity of the fare – samosai and biryani on one night, fried chicken and watermelon on the next– each and every mosque welcomed the young Pakistani men who broke fast and prayed with the mosque's regular attendees. This kind of hospitality extends beyond fellow Muslims as well. Here in Houston, I often see homeless non-Muslims come into mosques during Ramadan to get a free bite to eat. With the world food fair we wanted to accomplish two things: to emulate the hospitality received by all during Ramadan, and to illustrate the geographic diversity of the Muslim world. In other words, being a Muslim does not simply mean being Arab or Pakistani.
Islam Awareness Week began with "Open Jumma". The word jummatranslates to "Friday" and connotes the weekly Friday congregation Muslims are required to attend. During the year, all students are welcome to attend any of these weekly prayers typically held in Fondren Library's Kyle Morrow Room. For IAW, Jumma occured in Kelley Lounge in the Rice Memorial Center. The topic of the sermon for Open Jumma followed in the spirit of the inter-community/inter-faith harmony that characterizes Islam Awareness Week. The imam leading the Open Jumma prayer talked about the Prophet Muhammad's own philosophy for dealing with other religious communities.
Muhammad's refusal to go to war until diplomacy had failed is rarely mentioned in the hysterical rants of media talking heads. During his life, he struck several peace treaties with Mecca's tribal leaders, people who made numerous attempts on his life. One popular story describes how the Prophet noticed that a non-Muslim neighbor who usually greeted him by hurling insults and garbage at his door had failed to perform her ritual for a few days in a row. When he found out that she had fallen ill, he went to see her personally to inquire after her health. That is the Muhammad the vast majority of Muslims admire. The sword-wielding Prophet obsessed with killing infidels is only a role model for an extreme minority.
Unfortunately, this minority is obnoxiously vocal and perversely dedicated to its interpretation of Islam. As a result, many non-Muslims develop their impressions of Islam based on the words and actions of extremists. Our last event, "Islam, Violence, and Terrorism" with Dr. John Voll from Georgetown University, attempts to address the various Muslim responses to terrorism. Dr. Voll will discuss how Muslim leaders actually oppose religious violence and will also describe the role of Muslims in the emerging sense of global pluralism; in so doing, Dr. Voll will answer the question of why it is sometimes difficult to hear the "moderate" Muslim voice that is in opposition to the kind of senseless violence perpetrated by terrorists.
Dalia Mogahed, a researcher with the Gallup center, summarizes the plight of Muslims around the world succinctly in the Statesman article. According to Mogahed, "When a deranged person of a certain faith [besides Islam] commits a crime in the name of their faith, we look at these incidents as someone misinterpreting faith. When a terrorist commits an act of violence in the name of Islam, it is oftentimes framed as being devoted to the faith rather than being deviant."
It is this misperception of Islam and Muslims that the Rice MSA is hoping to correct with our Islam Awareness Week program.
Wiess Senior Huda Khalid helped write this article.