Clearing the Air
The group's officers, meeting in a small room on the UTSA campus to plan the week's events, are as diverse as the rest of San Antonio. The students are thoughtful, efficient, and well-informed about current events. And contrary to popular misconception, "None of us are Arab," historian Mohammad Arsalan Khan points out.
Across the United States, Muslim Student Associations will be holding similar events that are open to the public. MSA "mainly wants to educate," explains Edward McCoy, the group's public relations officer. "There is so much extremism out there," continues the recent convert to Islam, explaining that others often mistakenly conflate the cultural customs of one nationality with the religion itself.
One of the strongest misconceptions that Americans hold about Muslims is the meaning of the hijab, or headscarf that some women wear. While Americans assume that a veil indicates a lesser status in the society, Khan is quick to explain that "women have a high status in Islam." A similar headcovering on a Catholic nun is treated with reverence, but on a Muslim woman, it is treated with a variety of emotions - from reverence to fear. A man with a beard suffers a similar fate, due to prejudice and biased media portrayals, as Khan notes: "A man with a beard looks like a terrorist."
For the most part, life for these students is fairly routine. Asked about issues they face as Muslim students, a debate about campus food - and whether or not a Muslim could eat the meat - sparks the most controversy. But immediately after 9-11, the situation was very different. "I didn't want to go somewhere too public," says Zafarullah, who was afraid of anti-Muslim backlash. MSA president Fahad Shamsi faced pressure from his parents, who warned him not to "say anything dumb on the phone or online." There were the occasional mean-spirited jabs by strangers, and the "pity-nice" treatment - a too-nice demeanor that all of the students had experienced. Most frustratingly, they found their religion vilified for the acts of extremist: "When a Muslim does something wrong, it is Islam on trial," says secretary Sakib Shaikh.
Now the MSA faces a new challenge: educating their city and their fellow Muslims. It is a task made easier by an unexpected consequence of 9-11 - increased interest in Islam and the Middle East. "More people come up and ask you about Islam," says Fouzia Mohammad, one of the two group members in attendance wearing a hijab. UTSA is a comfortable environment, explains Shamsi: "Most of the people here are foreign."
Like San Antonians, these students are part of two cultures. Sophomore Zafarullah describes their "unique position": "Muslim for sure, American for sure." •
Islamic Awareness Week will take place on the UTSA campus from April 5-9. All events are free and open to the public. At press time, the schedule was tentative and room numbers had yet to be assigned. For more information on Islamic Awareness Week, visit http://lonestar.utsa.edu/msa, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact Muslim Student Association president Fahad Shamsi at 859-2278.
By Laura Fries