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|Muslims Make Gains at U.S. Universities|
|02/13/01 at 02:02:40|
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February 13, 2001
Muslims Make Gains at U.S. Universities
By JODI WILGOREN
AMBRIDGE, Mass., Feb.
9 — At 1 a.m. on her first
night as a student here at the
Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, Sarah Ibrahim
Her roommates were entertaining
friends in their cramped triple. A
committed Muslim who covers her
hair around men outside her family,
Ms. Ibrahim feared she might
never be able to remove her head
scarf and go to sleep.
"I just called my dad and said,
`O.K., take me home,' " Ms.
But she soon returned to campus,
the only freshman with a single
room in the all-woman dormitory.
Now a sophomore, Ms. Ibrahim
often cooks Islamically approved
food, or halal, in the suite she
shares with eight other women,
three of them Muslim. Men are
banned from the restroom on her
floor, and a suite-mate's boyfriend
is careful to announce himself
rather than barge in.
"The second you say religious
reasons," said Ms. Ibrahim, 18, a
chemical engineering major from
Wayne, N.J., "people are quick to
The number of Muslims at American colleges and universities has more
than doubled over the past decade, and although they remain a tiny
minority — under 1 percent — their presence is helping reconfigure
many campuses in substantial ways. Arriving from around the globe and
including African-Americans, they are creating vibrant hubs for what is
the nation's fastest-growing religious community. But they are also
presenting new problems for administrators eager to embrace diversity.
From the College of Wooster in Ohio to Southern Methodist University
in Dallas to the University of Southern California, students struggle to
avoid classes during Jum'aa, the Friday afternoon congregational prayer.
Dining halls provide boxed meals for takeout during Ramadan, a month
of fasting from sunup to sunset. And then there is the delicate matter of
using shared sinks to wash one's feet before prayer.
Dozens of colleges and universities have hired part-time imams to
minister to Muslims. At least 75 colleges have dedicated space for
Muslims' prayers, said five times daily, whether it be a basement
dormitory room, a stairwell landing in the library or a specially designed
room like the one at M.I.T., which includes tiled areas with thigh-high
faucets where students rinse their forearms, face and feet before kneeling
While any devout student is forced to make compromises and choices,
Muslims face particular challenges because essential elements of campus
life, like drinking and dating, are prohibited by their religion.
Tensions often flare between Muslims and Jews on campus over conflicts
in the Middle East, but now the two groups are beginning to forge links
over common interests, including similar dietary laws and accommodation
for religious practice.
At Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., the first halal and kosher dining
hall is scheduled to open this fall.
"It's not coming at odds with the rest of the campus," said Altaf Husain,
national president of the Muslim Students Association, which has 500
chapters throughout North America. "It's almost like saying while
everyone else has their rights, we would like to have our rights."
In part, the changes reflect a religious revival among students of all faiths,
and a new trend of campus centers where Baptists and Buddhists,
Seventh-day Adventists and Zoroastrians pass each other in the hallways
of a shared building.
Colleges typically do not keep track of students' religions, but an annual
survey by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles
shows that .9 percent of first-year students nationwide identified
themselves as Muslims last year, up from .4 percent in 1990 and .1
percent in 1974. (Jews, meanwhile, have decreased from 5.4 percent of
freshmen in 1970 to 2.8 percent in 2000.)
The growth comes as a generation of children of Muslim immigrants
reach college age and is fueled by an increase in international students.
There are an estimated 6 million Muslims in the United States.
Muslims are a diverse lot, with immigrants from Bosnia, Asia, Africa and
the Persian Gulf praying shoulder to shoulder with American blacks and
recent converts like Jennifer DiMarzo, a freshman at Simmons College in
Yet Islam remains shrouded in mystery for many students, and Muslims
often complain of stereotyping and discrimination. The Council on
American-Islamic Relations, based in Washington, received reports last
year that a student was expelled from class after rebutting derogatory
comments about Islam; that a college employee poured glue in the shoe
of a Muslim who was praying, barefoot, in the library; that
Muslim-sponsored posters about the Middle East were ripped down on
campuses; and that a professor used a textbook tainting Muslims as
Still, students report nascent partnerships with other religious groups on
campus, particularly Jews, who were among the first to diversify
American colleges in the 1950's.
At Dartmouth, the president of the Islamic student group, Al-Nur, and
the Jewish president of Hillel began having dinner together last year, and
this fall the two led a candlelight vigil promoting Middle East peace. In
pushing for the kosher-halal meal plan, a $300,000 project, they
capitalized on the strength of their combined numbers, as well as the
college's desire to promote harmony among diverse groups.
Judaism and Islam have many parallel dietary restrictions, including ritual
slaughter and a prohibition on pork, and many Muslims eat kosher meat.
But after the combined dining hall was approved, Dartmouth was unable
to find a butcher anywhere in the world that provides simultaneous
rabbinic and Islamic supervision.
So the college plans to provide separate halal and kosher meals under
the same roof, with chefs respecting both traditions, by keeping milk and
meat separate (a Jewish stricture) and avoiding alcohol (an Islamic rule).
This fall, organizers hope to arrange what may be the first ever
halal-kosher Thanksgiving, with a ritual slaughter at a turkey farm near
campus involving both an imam and a rabbi.
"When I close my eyes and pray, it doesn't really matter what Yousuf is
praying next to me," Jason Spitalnick, the Hillel president, said of his
Muslim counterpart, Yousuf Haque.
At M.I.T. this afternoon, Jews in kippot waited for Sabbath services a
few yards from Muslims putting on their shoes after Maghreb, the sunset
prayer. Earlier, the hallway was filled with hiking boots and sneakers,
loafers and lace-ups, as more than 100 students, employees, even
cabdrivers, gathered for Jum'aa.
Fadilah Khan, a junior, arrived late, slipping boots off from beneath
cuffed jeans and taking a black scarf from her backpack. She had rushed
from a lecture, stopping to drop her résumé at a job fair, and left quickly
for a computer workshop.
Similar scheduling snafus abound. Numan Waheed, a doctoral candidate
in chemical engineering, skipped the Friday sessions of a required course,
Transport Processes, until his grades slipped. Then he skipped Jum'aa.
"I was completely lost that semester; when I came back in the spring,
everything fell into place," said Mr. Waheed, president of the M.I.T.
Muslim Students Association. "I honestly believed that I was failing the
class because I was missing the prayer."
Whether they come from a Muslim country like Pakistan, or grew up the
only student wearing a head scarf at a public school, many students flock
to the insular Muslim Students Association, which sponsors intramural
basketball teams, ski trips and paintball along with religious events.
Tonight, M.I.T.'s Muslims shunned fraternity parties for a feast of spicy
stewed chicken, kefte, curried potatoes and yogurt sauce. Seif Fateem, a
graduate student who once opted out of a game in a Microeconomics
course because all the prizes were beer, tossed candy to those who
correctly answered trivia questions: How many times did the prophet
make Haj, or pilgrimage? (One.) What is the most common name in the
world? (Mohammed.) How many brothers did the prophet Joseph have?
Men and women naturally segregated, gossiping in English and Arabic,
but as the evening wore on, a young man approached a young woman,
asking her to go talk to another young man, who was wondering the
name of another young woman.
Ms. Ibrahim posed for a photograph with Belal Helal, a graduate student
from Saudi Arabia who was handing out Muslim literature those first
weeks of freshman year, when Ms. Ibrahim was commuting from her
father's home in Quincy, Mass., because of her roommate problems.
They are engaged to be married next summer.
"There's a whole culture of being different," Ms. Ibrahim shrugged under
her mauve and vanilla head scarf. "You're considered somewhat cooler if
you don't do what everyone else does."
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