Isthmus: Misconceptions frustrate UW campus Muslims

It’s a hard enough path to follow without being linked to terrorism.

UW students Dalia Saleh and Akbar Yakub. Says Salehl, 'I know my religion. I know how good it is, and I want other people to know.'

It’s 12:30 p.m. on a Friday in December. Dalia Saleh and her friends are kneeling on the floor, bowing their heads in reverence to Allah.

These are the weekly services at the Islamic Center, 21 N. Orchard St. Everyone has removed his or her shoes, out of respect for Allah. About 30 men are at the front of the hexagonal building, women at the back of the room.

Saleh and her friends — eight other college-age women — sit on a balcony overlooking the service below. A brief sermon, usually a lesson on how to be a good Muslim, is followed by one of the five daily prayers.

Saleh, 20, is one of about 300 to 400 Muslim students on the UW-Madison campus. She does not date, wear makeup or drink alcohol. Her faith is visible in the dark silk sheath wrapped tightly around her head.

“Islam is the type of religion that touches every aspect of my life,” Saleh says. “I try to always be conscious of my religion.”

Muslims on the UW-Madison campus, like Muslims everywhere, often encounter unfair perceptions.

“It’s harmless, in the sense that it usually isn’t something the person is doing on purpose,” Saleh says. “It’s that they don’t understand a lot about the religion, and they have a lot of assumptions and misconceptions.”

For instance, many people think the headscarf (hijab) is meant to make women submissive, but Saleh says its purpose is to empower women and prevent objectification. And in fact, Islamic women are encouraged to seek independence and higher education.

Most troublesome of all is the belief that Islam condones terrorism. “It’s very frustrating,” Saleh says of this perception. “I know my religion. I know how good it is, and I want other people to know how good it is.”

Islam, whose roots go back 14 centuries, is today practiced by more than 1.2 billion people.

Muslims pray five times a day: between dawn and sunrise, at noon, in the afternoon, at sunset and before midnight. During the holy month of Ramadan, they can’t eat, drink, smoke or have sex from sunrise to sunset.

All Muslims who are physically and financially able must make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at some point in their lives. And all Muslims must donate 2.5% of their wealth to the needy each year.

“[Islam] is so embedded. It’s a sense of who I am,” says Neha Hasan, a sophomore engineering major and events coordinator for the Muslim Students Association. “Praying five times a day, it’s for support.”

Unlike Saleh, Hasan does not wear a headscarf. Dressed in dark blue jeans and a crimson blouse, she does not talk about her faith unless asked. And while Islam has brought her a sense of stability in her stressful college years, Hasan has at times struggled to follow her faith.

“Gender relations was a difficult thing to overcome [in college],” she says. “I don’t date, but I have to keep checking myself.”

This checking and self-reflection is a part of many Muslim students’ lives.

“[Islam] makes me always question what I’m doing,” says Mohammed Ansari, 24, a computer sciences graduate student from India. “Am I doing something that’s ultimately beneficial to me? And it gets hard at times.”

Like waking up at dawn every morning to pray.

Where do Muslim stereotypes originate? Ansari blames the media, which he says peg Muslims as dangerous and unstable, based on the actions of a few.

Yet the UW’s Muslim students say they encounter little overt discrimination on campus or in the community.

“I’ve never had anything happen to me,” says Salman Dar, 21, vice president of the Muslim Students Association. “No one’s ever confronted me. No one’s ever said anything to me. And I haven’t ever found people who treat me differently. I think [prejudice] is rare, at best.”

At 7:30 on a Thursday night in the Memorial Union, 10 Muslim students sit around a table decorated with Kit Kat bars and M&Ms. The meeting starts with a debate over the gelatin content in Starburst and Skittles — is it pork gelatin, and therefore forbidden, or is it beef gelatin?

Saleh resolves the dispute, saying she contacted the Mars Corporation and was told it is indeed beef gelatin. Thank Allah. Now the meeting can begin.

“Muslims are always late, and we tend to get off topic,” says Dar. The schedule of upcoming events is broken by random YouTube videos of Muslim rappers. Dar tries to keep the meeting on task, yelling over continuous laughter and quieting members when they get rowdy.

Dar says about 30 active members help with events. Campus Muslims come from all over, including India, Iraq, Pakistan and Egypt.

“MSA is predominantly a minority group, but it’s very diverse,” Dar says. “There are Muslims from everywhere.”

In his personal life, MSA public relations chair Akbar Yakub refrains from drinking, gambling and gossiping. In class, he strives to provide what he calls the “Islamic insight” on issues from health care to pop culture.

“I know there’s not much I can do personally,” Yakub says, “[except] set an example of what Muslims really are and what they believe.”

Saleh, for her part, notes that Allah is the God of Abraham — the same “God” worshiped by Christians and Jews. But she acknowledges that Islam is very different from Christianity, and is glad to help others understand its complexity.

“If you don’t make an effort to understand Islam, there are things that can be difficult [to understand],” Saleh says. “But I really want people to know Islam is not an oppressive religion. Islam does not support going and blowing up a bus.”

Posted 21 January 2010

By Claire Milliken

More on the web
UW-Madison Muslim Students Association website:
UW-Madison’s Inside Islam: Dialogues and Debates blog:
To read Wisconsin Public Radio’s Inside Islam blog or listen to a podcast of the Inside Islam radio series,