Room For Faith

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UC Santa Cruz Muslim Student Association member Hasnain Nazar. Illustrated by Christine Hipp.
UC Santa Cruz Muslim Student Association member Hasnain Nazar. Illustrated by Christine Hipp.

Some arrive late. The door creaks against the voice of the man who sings verses of the Quran at the front of the room. These latecomers shrug off their backpacks, leaving them in a pile against the wall and hurriedly slide off their shoes before joining the rows of worshippers on the carpet. Each person faces the same direction, some with prayer rugs spread before their feet and others without, some rugs shared between two. They respond to the speaker in a unified, harmonic voice, bowing and kneeling between each segment of prayer.

This meeting of Muslim students is called Jumu’aa. Within the Muslim faith, Jumu’aa — a communal prayer — is held every Friday afternoon.

“[Jumu’aa] is meant to be a moment of reflection, to think about what happened in the last week,” said Abderrahman Bellal, a fourth-year from College Nine and president of the UC Santa Cruz Muslim Students Association (MSA). “When you’re walking between classes, it’s quiet, it gives you room to think. This time is similar, in that sense.”

The Office of Campus Life at UCSC sponsored MSA started to reserve this room for prayer in the 2010-2011 school year, according to Tariq El-Gabalawy, a fourth-year linguistics major who practices Islam. The room is open to both MSA members and nonmembers alike. Dean of students Alma Sifuentes worked directly with the group.

“My job as the dean of students is to try to facilitate activities that will help students be successful on campus academically,” Sifuentes said. “If you have a balanced life outside the classroom, you will do better in the classroom.”

Providing this space is one effort made to evaluate and improve the experience of Muslim students within the UC system.

In April and May of 2012, the UC President’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion sent a team to meet with and evaluate the experience of about 65–70 Muslim, Palestinian and Arab students. The team spoke with students from UCSC, UC Davis, UC San Diego, UC Irvine, UC Los Angeles and UC Berkeley.

The purpose of evaluating these students’ experience was to “monitor and evaluate the progress of each campus toward ensuring conditions and practices that … provide equal opportunities for its community of students, faculty and staff,” according to the report published July 9, 2012.

The team found “the University of California campuses to be generally safe and welcoming environments for Muslim and Arab students; however, for students who are visibly and apparently Muslim or Arab, as well as active participants or leaders of organized student groups, the daily experience on UC campuses is notably negative and characterized by institutional insensitivity and daily harassment.”

In the wider sphere of the United States, the past two years have seen a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, anti-Muslim hate crimes increased by 50 percent nationally after the “Ground Zero Mosque” was proposed by the Cordoba Initiative in 2010. This percentage had barely dropped as of 2011, according to the most recent FBI hate crime statistics.

Some UCSC students and faculty said they experienced anti-Muslim attitudes in the aftermath of terrorist attacks of September 2001.

“My mom and many women in my family wear a headscarf,” El-Gabalawy said, “and after 9/11, we got harassed a bunch of times.”

Such harassment extends even to those whose appearances are similar to Muslims. Like Muslim men, Sikh men traditionally do not cut their beards. Sikh men wear a dastar, a turban that may be perceived as similar to the imamah that Muslim men traditionally wear.

Nirvikar Singh, a practicing Sikh and the chair of the Sikh and Punjabi Studies program at UCSC, said he experienced misplaced harassment during the period following Sept. 11, 2001.

“[This] was the main epithet I heard after 9/11 again and again,” Singh said. “Somebody rolls down the window of their car or pickup truck and shouts, ‘Osama bin Laden’ at me.”

Today, Muslim students at UCSC willing to come forward with their experiences on campus gave

UC Santa Cruz Muslim Student Association member Shadin Awad. Illustration by Christine Hipp.
UC Santa Cruz Muslim Student Association member Shadin Awad. Illustration by Christine Hipp.

reports that differ from those reported to occur at the national level.

Like women in El-Gabalawy’s family, Nargis Mohsini, a third-year UCSC student and vice president of MSA, wears a hijab, which visibly identifies her as Muslim. She said her peers have met her faith with acceptance.

“I only started wearing this hijab last year,” Mohsini said. “My first year, I didn’t wear it. There’s not much of a difference. The only thing is people look at me and I don’t mind that because it’s normal. People will compliment my scarf, and say ‘Oh, I like how you wrap it,’ or, ‘I like this scarf,’ but I’ve never had any negative experiences so far.”

Bellal, the president of MSA at UCSC, said some UCSC Muslim students maintain a quiet presence to avoid negative treatment.

“In the media, you always hear stories about Muslim students on other campuses being harassed,” Bellal said. “Parents are telling Muslim students to keep themselves out of situations where they could potentially be in trouble.”

Some Muslim students choose to create community through MSA, which serves as a space for these students to come together and be open about their religious beliefs. According to UCSC MSA’s website, their mission is “spreading truth and awareness about the real, peaceable message of Islam, and creating a safe and supportive environment for Muslims on campus as well as every person of goodwill to come together and connect.”

“We’re not political,” said Hasnain Nazar, a recent UCSC graduate and former president of UCSC MSA. “We’re an organization that’s purely trying to exist and coexist … to spread a little awareness and also to facilitate dialogue.”

In his one quarter at UCSC, Ziad Itani, a member of MSA, said everyone is respectful.

“I tell them I’m Muslim and they’re like, ‘Okay,’” Itani said. “I haven’t experienced anything against Islam.”

Mohsini said this generation is more accepting than its predecessor.

“Of course, some people might not be accepting of it, but I feel like a lot of people are open to it, or they’re okay with it,” Mohsini said. “People are more ‘do your own thing, it’s whatever,’ so it’s pretty chill.”

Despite these particular reports, El-Gabalawy said there is work to be done.

“I have positive hopes for the future, but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t go on promoting diversity,” El-Gabalawy said.

The University Interfaith Council (UIC) is part of the administration’s effort to promote religious diversity at UCSC. According to their website, UIC is an administrative outlet created for the purpose of “[integrating] spirituality with academic life.” UIC, of which MSA is a member, receives university support because it accepts groups of all beliefs, said Pamela Urfer, the president of UIC.

“Diversity is the secret,” Urfer said. “Diversity and inclusion.”

Urfer said that the chancellor’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion is currently working to improve the university experience for religious students and faculty.

The Office of Campus Life took a step toward improving the experience of Muslim students by reserving a room for MSA to hold their weekly prayers — but when around campus, away from the prayer room, Muslim students have to find balance between their faith and their studies.

“If I were in class, and it’s my prayer time, then I’ll excuse myself,” Mohsini said. “I’ll tell the teacher beforehand and then I’ll come back. It’s no problem. In the library, I find a secluded little corner where no one’s usually at, so I’ll just pray there.”

Within students’ studies, academics and faith don’t always align. As a human biology major, Mohsini said there have been instances where the study of evolution conflicted with her faith.

“I learn things from school, for example evolution, that conflict with my religion,” Mohsini said. “But I only learn about evolution because it’s for school. I don’t take what I learn about evolution and take it to heart.”

For an anonymous non-secular faculty member, working in her academic field complements her faith.

“It is an integral part of my faith to seek knowledge,” this faculty member said. “And to me, the scientific method is one very important way to establish knowledge.”

Aside from balancing their faith and their studies, Muslim students also have to address views of Islam promoted by popular media and external sources.

“Any time you have a group that’s talked about a lot and stigmatized in popular media and you have a lot of people who have no experience or contact with those communities, people have preconceptions about them,” El-Gabalawy said.

In the experience of Shabir Ahmed, a first-year member of MSA, some of these stigmas have been spurred by what he calls “popular media’s demonization of Islam.”

“I’m Muslim and I’m human,” Ahmed said. “We’re normal and we do normal things.”

Nazar, former president of MSA, said that misconceptions about Islam attach “stigmas” to the Muslim faith. During a meeting they held on Feb. 21, about 12 MSA members addressed the most recent in a string of controversial comments made from within the UCSC community that may proliferate such misconceptions.

“When I joined the MSA, it was an accident,” Nazar said. “I came to the MSA with fear already because of the stigma that was attached to these organizations from people [who make statements like these].”

MSA members are still addressing the repercussions caused by these particular statements.

“The comments were really disheartening. A lot of people don’t know a lot about Islam in the first place,” said Shadin Awad, a member of MSA, during the meeting. “It’s already enough that as Muslims on campus we’re not visible in number.”

Some MSA members voiced worries at the meeting that the number of incoming Muslim freshmen will be adversely affected because of these comments.

“Someone who’s a Muslim in high school, who’s going to want to come to this school?” said Kamran Ali, MSA’s public relation’s officer.

Alma Sifuentes, dean of students, said students from a range of ethnic and religious backgrounds — including Jewish, Arab and Middle Eastern students — “have explicitly said that they don’t agree with [these] comments.”

“I have had a number of students across a spectrum — maybe 10 or so — share with me that they would like to move past those kinds of comments and really work on making everybody feel welcome on the campus,” Sifuentes said.

In response, some MSA members consented to having their faces, names and the title of MSA printed on flyers posted around campus calling for UC President Yudof to take official action.

On a long term scale, MSA plans to combat misconceptions about their faith through promoting awareness about Islam in the UCSC community.

MSA carries out this mission through public outreach and trying to educate the campus community about the Muslim faith.

“At the end of the day, we have to do our own thing as an MSA, which is create our own image,” Bellal said.

Currently, MSA is planning a community service day and an Islam Awareness Week for spring quarter to spread awareness about the Muslim faith and its presence in Santa Cruz. At the meeting, several members, including former president Hasnain Nazar, voiced encouragement for increasing their publicity.

“It’s important now to step a little bit more into the domain of, ‘Hey, look at the community service we just did,’” Nazar said.

Through expanding MSA’s presence on campus, members hope to further their original mission of being a community resource for Muslim students.

“We try to help connect other Muslims and have a tight knit little community,” Mohsini said, “Just us, just hanging out.”

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