Last March, Florida International University President Mark Rosenberg spoke onstage at a gathering for the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations. He said that in a time of divisions, FIU must do more to promote discourse and relationship-building between people of different religions and cultures.
"If you give me a pile of stones, my responsibility and the responsibility of my colleagues at FIU with those stones is to build a bridge," he said. "Now more than ever, we need those bridges."
Nearly a year since its founding, FIU faculty and students say the university's Islamic studies center is serving as such a unifier.
With more than 100 students in its certificate program, the Mohsin and Fauzi Jaffer Center for Muslim Studies seeks to promote a greater understanding of the world's Muslim community. And students say it highlights the similarities of cultures and religions that are often thought to be at odds.
"The people of this world share one planet," said Mohsin Jaffer, a Muslim physician and the center's namesake who donated $2 million toward its founding. "We have to live with each other and understand each other. Because when you don't understand another person, you fear them."
Administrators say the center—housed within the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs—over the past year has held more than two dozen events and discussions to increase awareness about Muslim-related issues. Courses focus on the Muslim diaspora, instability in parts of the Middle East and South Asia and misconceptions about Islamic identity.
As the center now celebrates its one-year anniversary, it will expand course offerings and move into a soon-to-be constructed campus building. And in a period of continuing tension between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims, the center is planning a conference to highlight the historical connections between the two religions.
Jaffer said a key to the center's success is its location in South Florida, where it can interact with people of different ethnicities and religions.
The Miami area "is a springboard to Latin America and also we have a lot interaction with Europe," he said. "If he we have a robust program here, we can have interaction and exchange with professors and students from all over the world."
Jaffer and the Muslim center's director, Mohiaddin Mesbahi, added the center seeks to address Islamophobia and misconceptions about Muslims that have hardened since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Educating non-Muslims about Islam in an objective manner can help dismantle such negative perceptions, Mesbahi said.
For Lana Shehadeh, the center's focus on Islamophobia is especially meaningful. A Muslim graduate student at FIU who wears a hijab, Shehadeh has grown accustomed to stares and comments about her head scarf. Still, she doesn't want her two daughters to share such experiences. FIU's Muslim center, she said, can help ensure that.
"I don't want my kids to grow up in a world where they're constantly uncomfortable with who they are," Shehadeh said. "The center gives a more favorable and authentic image of Muslims."