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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, May 25, 2024

'Muslim at heart:' Muslim students discuss experiences, relationships to their faith

Prayer-Room-2

Over the past month, the Daily sat down with four practicing Muslim students and asked them to share their stories and talk openly and honestly about their faith. The discussions were open-ended and the topics the students touched on included their thoughts about God, where they locate themselves within the Muslim community on campus, the Trump administration and the mounting politicization of their religion in national discourse.

The conversations revealed stories that were personal and by no means representative of the entire Muslim student body. Three of the students were undergraduates from different U.S. cities, while the fourth hails from India and studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. They practice their faith with varying regularity, they’ve had different experiences with Islamophobia and their faith has evolved in different ways over time.

One issue came up in some form during every discussion: the representation of Muslims in the media or in popular discourse. All four students agreed that the media has contributed to the stereotypes that they face in their everyday lives. Two of the students talked about consistently dealing with stereotypes whenever they crop up in conversations with non-Muslims. One student acknowledged she had struggled with feeling obligated to defend her faith whenever it was challenged before eventually accepting that that fight wasn’t necessarily her job.

Muslim students, like Jewish or Christian students, cannot be categorized. No single narrative or segment of the political spectrum can wholly encompass them. A truth that is often lost in politicization is that the only way to learn someone’s story is to listen to it.

Susan

Susan Hassan is a junior and a quantitative economics major born and raised in Somerville, Mass. Islam has always been important to her. At Tufts, before a dedicated prayer room (known as a musallah) was installed in Curtis Hall in 2015, she prayed in the library between the stacks. In high school, she made time for her religion despite a packed schedule. She wanted to fast during the month of Ramadan with the rest of her family, even when she was too young to do so.

“I used to fast [for parts of some days] when I was five because I really wanted to, and I thought it was so cool and so awesome," Hassan said. "I love the month of Ramadan because the atmosphere is so amazing. Even to this day I love it. It was just something I've always loved to do, ever since I can remember.”

Hassan said her faith has not changed significantly since she got to college. Her ability to practice it, however, has. The new musallah has helped her miss far fewer prayers than she did during her first year at Tufts.

“In high school, there [was not] a place for you to go pray during class,” she said. “Here, I'm way more able to pray on time instead of having to make up all of my prayers at the end of the day and miss them all … Almost every day you can find me [at the musallah].”

She can now also make time to attend midday Friday prayers (known as khutbas). When she was in high school, khutbas conflicted with class time.

“[The weekly sermon] definitely brings me closer to my faith, allows me to reflect on life and just adds to my journey in life,” she said. “It's definitely a change for me, from not going at all to going way more often and learning a lot more and feeling I guess a sense of community.”

Susan chose not to specify the sect of Islam to which she adheres.

“I think that a Muslim is a Muslim, so I just think all the sects or whatever were created to divide people, and I don’t like that idea of division, so I’d rather not say what sect I follow,” she said. “I am Muslim, and that’s all I'll say on that.” 

One of the Five Pillars of Islam is the completion of the Hajj a pilgrimage to Mecca during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah — at some point in one’s lifetime. Hassan has not had the chance to do this yet and wants to wait until she’s ready.

“I think I would want to do that a bit later in life, once I’ve had the opportunity to study everything that it entails, so that when I go I can do it as perfectly as possible,” she said. “For me, it’s a very important step and it’s not something to take lightly, and I want to make sure I have the knowledge and [that] I’ve studied and I’ve prepared.”


Though Hassan prioritizes her faith, she is not as actively involved with the Muslim Students Association (MSA) on campus.

“I feel like when I was in high school [and] coming here as a freshman I thought I would be way more involved,” she said. “You, I guess, feel like you can be involved in so many clubs, kind of like you were in high school, but that's not the reality in college … my faith is definitely a priority, but I guess club-wise, I'd rather put my time into things for my career.”

Hassan does appreciate being surrounded by a community of Muslims at Tufts, since she was one of only a few at Somerville High School.

Her faith, she said, has never made her feel singled out. Her school and community were supportive; she recalls being allowed to pray in a school office during class and a teacher giving her cookies to eat after sundown during Ramadan.

“Even until now, I'll pray in front of [my friends]. I'll be at their house and be like, ‘Oh, can you pause the movie, I need to pray.' I don't care,” Hassan said.

Her friends in Somerville came from diverse backgrounds.

“I have friends who are very conservative Christians, two of them actually that are Pentecostal. I have a lot of Buddhist friends from Nepal,” she said.

Hassan explained that she gravitates toward people who are different than her. The Boston area’s diversity is one of the reasons she has always loved living here.

“Maybe that's also why I'm not that involved in MSA as I thought I would be, because I'm not used to people like me. I’m used to people different than me, and I kind of like that. I like to learn from other peoples' perspectives and listen to their stories,” she said. “I feel like it's so enriching, and I really, really value diversity … with all the recent events that are happening, I'm definitely way prouder -- even though I was already so proud -- to be from Boston and Somerville.”

She said that she has not personally experienced much insensitivity or discrimination due to her faith, whether over the course of this politically-charged election cycle or before.

“I think sometimes it's more because [people are] interested, but don’t know how to express themselves correctly, or are confused about something and kind of want to ask and they don't necessarily mean it in a bad way,” she said. “I mean, sometimes maybe it is intentional, but I've never gotten an intentionally [insensitive] comment from someone I know personally.”

Hassan acknowledged, however, that her experience is not necessarily reflective of that of other American Muslims.

“I think it has a lot to do with where I grew up, because I’ve never left this area, so I’m sure in other parts of the country, peoples’ experiences are way different,” she said. “I think I’m lucky to be where I am, it’s just a very accepting place for the most part.”

Most of the insensitivity she has encountered, she said, has come from the media.

"'All Muslims are terrorists,' that's the biggest one … peoples’ cultural stuff is [described as] ‘terrorist dress.' But it's not, I think its beautiful,” she said. “Even things like the Keffiyeh, the Palestinian scarf ... that's seen as a political thing now, and I just think it looks really nice.”

She has not participated in activism or protest in response to recent events such as the Trump administration’s immigration ban, though she respects those who are doing so.

“I’m just not the activist person, although awesome job to everyone who [is] and stands up for what they believe in,” she said. “I think everyone should have a voice, and that's why I'm proud to be American, everyone can have a voice … but yeah, that's not really me, I don't know.”

Hassan hopes to continue centering Islam in her life after college. Her belief in God, she said, pervades everything she does.

“It's definitely a beautiful thing. Everyone has those points in life when you feel alone, but if you believe in God, you know that you're never alone and you always have someone to talk to,” she said. “It’s a very personal, intimate thing and I’m pretty sure everyone feels differently about it, and that’s kind of what’s beautiful, that its that specific to every person.”

Ayesha

Ayesha, who preferred not to provide her last name for this article, is a lawyer from India studying at The Fletcher School. After completing law school in her home country,she worked in a corporate law firm for two years, then spent another two working with the Indian government on a University of Chicago fellowship.

She’s now at Tufts studying international law and hopes to make a career in the fields of anticorruption, business and environmental law. She has lived in the United States for about six months.

Growing up in New Delhi, her father worked as a senior bureaucrat in the Indian government. Ayesha said her parents wanted to ground her in a progressive version of Islam.

“I come from a fairly religious family, but not very conservative in the sense that my mother does not wear the hijab, and all the women in our family are highly educated professionals,” she said. “It was a really good mix of religion and also making sure that the religious principles that we were taught reflected our modern values.”

Though she learned Arabic and read the Quran at home, Ayesha attended a Catholic convent school with few other Muslims. While being taught about her own faith, she also became familiar with Catholicism and Hinduism through the school.

“There were only around 20 to 25 Muslims, and so we were a minority … I think I got a really strong basis in the Christian faith,” she said. “I actually acted in the nativity play.”

Growing up, she said, all of her friends were Hindus and Christians. Their religion pushed her to learn about her own.

“I think that learning more about their faith sort of piqued my interest in my faith, and my parents got me books that taught me more about Islam,” she said.

According to Ayesha, the diverse, progressive religious education she received is not generally available to most Indians, Muslim or otherwise.

“I probably represent one or two percent of what is the actual situation in India," she said. "The majority of the Muslims in India are poor, they don’t have the best education."

Ayesha said that in India, divisive political rhetoric can often turn religious groups against one another, stoking fear and sometimes violence between communities. Despite this, she does not believe distrust between religions is inevitable or inherent in her country.

“I’m Indian to my core and I believe that Indians have a very good sense of fairness, they have a good sense of justice,” she said. “If I go to someone, a Hindu who doesn't like Muslims at all, and if I'm in trouble or pain and I asked that person to help, [they] will help me.”

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, intense and sweeping scrutiny of Islamic tenets in the media pushed Ayesha to further examine her faith.

“When September 11 happened, and I was in seventh grade I think at that time, I [said], 'Okay, why are they saying that Islam promotes jihad or Islam promotes murder?'” she said. “If you read the media at that time, they would actually quote phrases from the Quran and say, 'Okay, this means you can kill a nonbeliever.'"

To this day, Ayesha says she’s very aware of what she calls wrong interpretations of Islam: interpretations that advocate violence or discriminate against those of other faiths.

“I want to educate myself more to sort of say, 'No, this is not the correct interpretation,' because Islam could not at all allow for killing a religion which has built its foundations on peace and love for the other human being and respect,” she said. “You can't even hurt a little insect. You can't misconstrue it.”

At Tufts and in the United States, she has found a number of outlets for further exploring her faith and how it lines up with her own personal values. In 2014, while in New York City, she met one of the founders of a community of young American Muslims calling themselves Mipsterz, or Muslim Hipsters.

“I’d been to one of their meet-ups, as you call them … they would make pop art, and they would do these plays and storytelling, and they would discuss very hard concepts in Islam in a very easy way,” she said. “They're trying to make sense of what they’ve been taught, which can be very traditional ... but at the same time, they know there is more to religion than the version that has been given to them by their parents.”

At Tufts, Ayesha found a community through the MSA and the resources the group provides, which she said have been vital.

“I’m away from my family, I’m in a new country, living away for the first time for so long, and, in a way, it's a difficult environment,” she said. “I have had moments when I’ve actually gone and prayed in the Muslim house, and I would have gone with a heavy burden on my shoulders, and [after] just meeting a couple of the other people who are also praying — we'll sit and talk for 15, 20 minutes afterwards — I come out and I feel so relaxed, so good.”

Along with attending events put on by the Tufts MSA and the Muslim Student Association at MIT, she is also a part of Fletcher’s Islamic Society (FIS). As for prayers, Ayesha said her schedule makes it difficult to pray five times each day, but she tries to set aside time every day to pray at least once.

“It's not easy: I do have faith and I think … Islam is also [about] just knowing your faith in your heart and believing, and I think those shared values are universal like equality, fairness, respect,” she said. “I think I’m Muslim at heart.”

Though she has found accepting spaces for her religion in the United States, she said the current political climate still intimidates her on a day-to-day basis.

“I think I’m a little scared, for sure. Being a Muslim [in the current atmosphere] is a little scary,” she said. “I feel worse for people who — I respect them and admire them — but women who wear the hijab or people [whose] symbols of faith are more outward, I think they’re very strong.”

Ayesha, who doesn't wear the hijab, mentioned a recent hate crime at a Minnesota Applebee's, during which a Muslim woman was attacked with a beer mug because she was speaking Swahili. The fact that the attacker was prosecuted came as a relief to her: it proved that justice would be possible if she were to be the victim of a similar attack.

She expressed an urge to change the perceptions people have about Islam by being a prominent advocate for the religion.

“I think that the people who are indulging in these activities [and] these hate crimes are mostly people who are uninformed or people who have been given the wrong information,” she said. “That perception in their minds needs to change, and I think that can only happen when there are people who are educated and strong advocates of their religion of Islam, [who] come out and present themselves.”

Shadath

Shadath Chowdhury is a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering from Hamtramck, Mich. When he was younger, he used to repair cars in his spare time. After college, he said he might want to start his own car company or work with robotics in the auto industry.

His hometown, a diverse community home to immigrants hailing from dozens of countries, is likely one of the only majority-Muslim cities in the United States. In 2015, Hamtramck elected the country’s first majority-muslim city council.

“There's Bosnians, Yemenis, Syrians, Bengali people, Indian [and] Pakistani people,” Chowdhury said. “It's a pretty diverse area in itself, but also it's a very Islam-centered area.”

In 2004, the city approved an Islamic center’s right to broadcast the Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer. Both then and after the 2015 city council election, the city received national media attention over supposed tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims in the once-majority-Polish city. Other outlets, however, have said reports of conflict have been overblown.

Chowdhury said that today, the Adhan is just a part of life in his hometown.

“It became something that was normalized in our city because everyone kind of just got used to it,” he said. “Every city has churches, and churches use their bell chimes … they have complete seven minute songs that play on those bells, and our call is just five times a day and it only takes about thirty seconds.”

Chowdhury is well aware of how much less central Islam is at Tufts than it was in Hamtramck. He said that being away from home and continuing to practice his faith has been a test.

“[Back home] people already know that you're Muslim. Here you’ve got to tell people that you're Muslim,” Chowdhury said. “Your spiritual being is tested in that you are truly responsible for praying and being close to God, whereas over there you're sort of reminded by your family and by the people you're surrounded by that your religion comes second to none.” 

The presence of other Muslims, he said, makes it easier to remain dedicated to his faith.

“Just having a community is pretty good. In my opinion, two [people] is a community, having two Muslims in the school is a community,” he said. “You have a support system sort of thing.”

Despite having grown up in a vibrant Muslim community, Chowdhury said that his faith was tested in a similar way when he was in high school. He attended a private school 20 miles away on a scholarship. For three years, he was the only Muslim student there, until his sister started at the school during his senior year.

Many students at his high school came from conservative families. Chowdhury said that most of them had never met anyone who practiced Islam and that many were surprised that their school had admitted his sister, who wears a hijab.

“People would come up to her and ask her about being Muslim and what it was like,” he said. “[The] freshmen would go up and [tell] stupid terrorist jokes to her, but that didn't shake her because she's a stronger person than most people, and that didn't shake me either … we just never made it about identity, we made it about how our faith is.”

Chowdhury said that although he does not experience the same insensitivity here at Tufts, the Medford campus is host to a different set of stereotypes about Muslims. He said that in his experience, non-Muslim Tufts students often typecast Muslims as victims, treating them differently than they treat others.

“I wouldn’t say [Tufts students are] accepting. Tolerance is a much better word to explain how Tufts kids act toward other faiths or people that don't look like them,” he said. “They automatically see you as victims of something — that we obviously had no part of — [but] still, it’s more of a condescending way to speak to people.”

Chowdhury wonders whether he prefers to deal with the direct stereotyping and accusations he and his sister dealt with in high school, or the “victim first, friend second” relationship he sometimes encounters here, which he has had trouble calling out.

“I’d rather be accused of something that I didn't do then be spoken to in a condescending tone, because at least I can defend myself,” he said. “If you call people out on it and then they feel uncomfortable, if you want to be accepted, then that's not the thing you want to do, right?”

Chowdhury said that as an engineering student, accommodating the five daily prayers into his timetable can be a challenge, but that ultimately prayer provides him with a valuable balance.

“The closer to God you get, the better mental state you'll be in and [the] better spiritual state, where you can get more work done I think,” he said. “Faith is one of the most important formulas of being happy and just having balance in your life.”

Chowdhury is active in the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) at Tufts, though he does not think the organization does enough to promote itself and its events.

“We're a big group here at Tufts. We have our own house, did you know that?” he said, referring to the Muslim House at 176 Curtis St. “Not a lot of people know what the MSA is or that we even have an MSA, so it's pretty important to have better publicity.” 

Chowdhury said he’s running for an elected position within the group. He’d like to help improve the group's visibility on campus, as well as its outreach and publicity efforts during periods of heightened Islamophobia, such as the current post-election climate or the aftermath of the shootings in Orlando and San Bernardino in 2016 and 2015, respectively. He said that last year, he felt as though students running for MSA positions were not focused enough on outreach.

“[San Bernardino] was the biggest thing that happened, and then it was Orlando, and then it was obviously the election, but [students running for MSA positions] didn't want to talk about how the MSA would reach out to the community, and how the MSA would react to some of the things that went on in current events,” he said. “That's just really concerning because you have this group on campus that really should be reacting to a lot of these things.”

He said that spikes in Islamophobia have been tumultuous for Muslims back in Hamtramck. After the installation of the loudspeaker for the call to prayer in 2004, he said his mosque was visited by the Klu Klux Klan.

“I’d see people with Kentucky license plates lined up outside our mosque, ready to just be very aggressive with us as we enter or exit,” he said. “But we would just be nonviolent and get back in our cars, go back home and not think about it.”

After the city elected a majority-Muslim city council, Fox news's Pete Hegseth visited Hamtramck and produced a report that played up fears about the city's muslim residents not "assimilating." Chowdhury believes that portrayals like Hegseth's can do damage.

“On a deeper level, it's really concerning because some people would watch that that Fox News episode, especially older people, who would be scared somebody would elect a Muslim majority council in their city,” he said.

The political rhetoric surrounding Islam in the United States has not made Chowdhury question his faith or change his practices. He noted that even as Islamophobia swelled after the Sept. 11 attacks, his family and his community remained dedicated to their religion.

“Even in the time of our prophet ... everyone was Islamophobic, even back in the days when Islam was being created, so that shouldn't deter us from doing or believing what we believe in,” he said. “Muslims are strong, because the scriptures say so, the scripture says to be strong and to keep persevering through whatever adversity is on your way. I wouldn't say it’s that big of an issue now, because we've been through the worst of it.”

Nazifa

Nazifa Sarawat is a senior and the current president of Tufts' MSA. A Brooklyn native, she grew up in a Bengali family and lived in a neighborhood of Bengali Immigrants.

Sarawat said she did not feel the need to participate in her high school’s MSA. That changed when she arrived at Tufts. Away from her family, in a new city and on a campus with few other Muslims, she sought out community and a way to stay connected to her faith.

“This was such an integral part of my life in New York, and it's suddenly not there unless I create it for myself,” she said. “I think that's what a lot of college students who grew up Muslim feel: that this is something that they have to go out of their way to find at a liberal, 'secular' Christian school.”

While participating in Voices — Tufts’ diversity-centered admissions overnight program — during her senior year of high school, she met Tufts students who would eventually introduce her to the MSA when she arrived as a first-year. That year, she ran for the MSA’s Freshman Representative position. She’s been deeply involved in the Muslim community here ever since.

“I don't know if it was necessarily me looking to be connected to faith, or just me connecting to people of similar backgrounds and wanting to be a part of that community,” she said. “I think Islam is very community centric: There [are] a lot of individual practices, but the practices that give you the most blessings are the ones that you do together.”

The MSA regularly hosts speakers and events, such last month’s interfaith Friday prayer, or Jummah. Aside from the programming, Sarawat said that being part of a community of Muslims is valuable because it exposes her to other students who can relate to the ways in which her college experience differs from that of the majority of Tufts students.

One of the most obvious differences between her and other students is her decision not to drink in accordance with her faith.

“Not drinking is a big one because alcohol is such a pillar and cornerstone of college culture,” she said. “[Not drinking] is such a regular thing, or should be.”

After growing up in New York with Muslims from backgrounds similar to her own, Sarawat said she was struck by the diversity of the students who she met through the MSA.

“Seeing all these different types of Muslims from different socioeconomic classes and ethnicities was an eye-opener for me,” she said. “I learned a lot from that, about how much my understanding of Islam was tied into culture and how Islam was so much bigger than that.”

Sarawat said that although she had always aspired to practice Islam more regularly, she began to take steps to do so after having met Tufts students who had integrated their faith into their daily lives.

She started by attending Jummah prayers on Fridays more regularly — what she called a weekly break from her daily routine. Today, she does her best to complete the five daily prayers, which provide her with regular breaks from the cycle of work and classes, bringing her faith to the foreground.

“Because I'm making my day around prayer instead of doing prayer when it fits into my day, it makes my mindset shift,” she said. “I think people can get so caught up in these day-to-day things and being busy. But from my own experience, if I don't have a reason to do them, then it becomes easier to be sad.”

Though she has personally increased her commitment to Islam, Sarawat stressed the importance of an MSA that accommodates people who practice in different ways.

“I want MSA to be a space for people regardless of how much they practice … spiritually speaking, people have a diversity of connection," she said.

One way in which Sarawat hopes to keep the organization's membership varied and accepting is by respecting and considering the many different branches of Islam that students follow.

She also believes that class, in particular, is an important factor for the MSA to keep in mind. In the United States, she said, Muslims’ socioeconomic status and the communities in which they live can potentially affect how they perceive their Islamic faith, their 'Americanness' and their identity at-large.

Sarawat said that from her perspective, and based on conversations she's had with other Muslim students, a Muslim growing up in a wealthy, majority-white suburb might value assimilation into American culture and identifying as American. During her own experience growing up, however, Sarawat said she was not urged to replace her Bengali identity with a more 'American' one.

“I grew up in a working-class neighborhood, and the archetype of American was never something that I was told to try to achieve,” she said. “I was told subliminally through media and stuff like that, but my parents raised me and they were like, 'Being Bengali is important and being Muslim is important, even if you're in the United States.'”

Sarawat described the pressure to assimilate as a pressure to surrender aspects of one’s culture. She said that Muslims in America can often be held to an assimilationist standard that says they’re only 'good' if they are patriotic and adhere to American cultural values.

According to Sarawat, that expectation is present to some degree at Tufts.

“[At Tufts] in general, people’s perceptions of Islam line up with … the perception of Islam which is, ‘Oh, they're not all bad,’” she said. “The whole point is that being different isn't bad in itself … just the idea that you have to be American in order to be worth fighting for something, which is a weird one.”

For Sarawat’s family, the Sept. 11 attacks had a deep and lasting impact on their relationship to their faith. Her father was only a couple of blocks away from the Twin Towers that day. When the subways and roads shut down, he walked home over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Sarawat added that her father, who is Muslim, voted for President Trump in this year’s election. She believes that the events of Sept. 11 profoundly shaped his worldview.

“This is me psychoanalyzing my father, which I've spent a lot of time doing: I think he just comes from a place of deep fear of what he saw,” she said. “He doesn’t trust mosques or Islamic institutions.”

Her mother stopped wearing the hijab after the attacks. The family also stopped regularly attending mosque, and Nazifa and her siblings stopped attending Arabic school.

Growing up, Sarawat says she dealt with internalized Islamophobia — occasional feelings of doubt about her faith that would arise when people confronted her with stereotypes and pointed questions about Islam. When faced with these misconceptions, she felt the need to counter them.

“I had a script in my head ... [of how] to answer these questions: questions about hijabs like, ‘Isn’t Islam anti-women?’ or, ‘So you're not taught to kill people who aren't Muslim?’” she said. “It was my job as the Muslim in the classroom to know the answer and be able to address them and defend my religion.”

As she tried to dispel misconceptions about her faith, she was sometimes presented with questions to which she did not know the answer.

“[When] there's a point that you don't know, you start to think, 'Wait a minute, what if I'm wrong and Islam is evil and the worst thing ever?'” she said. “As an 11-year-old kid, I'm not going to be able to win every argument against every kid in my grade.”

After graduating high school, Sarawat said she was able to take the time to focus on her own Islamic knowledge and connection to God, rather than how to change people’s minds about Islam. She particularly likes a biweekly series the MSA runs at the Interfaith Center called “Wonder Woman Fridays,” which focuses on the stories of women featured in the Quran and in Islamic tradition.

Back home in New York, however, Sarawat said she has seen members of her family dealing with the same doubts she once faced more acutely.

“I was talking to my younger cousins — they were in high school — and it was Thanksgiving dinner and they were talking about Islam in general and then saying, ‘You know, some of these points are kind of true, right, like the 'Islam is anti-women' thing,’” she said. “These are young Muslim kids.”

Nonetheless, Sarawat said Islam is beautiful to her now because it offers her a relationship she can always rely on: that between her and God.

“Using religious practice as a way to improve my relationship with God, like with any relationship, I think it takes time and effort,” she said. “People can let you down and institutions can let you down, but if the most important thing is something that can't let you down … [that’s] pretty powerful.”