October 21, 2017

Muslim students find acceptance at Webster

Muslim students Sajeda Issa and Zubair Meo have found Webster University to be a welcoming campus. Both students said people in the United States have been friendly to them.

Islam is the second largest religion in the world according to Pew Research. Over three million Muslims live in the United States. A 2015 Gallup poll cited that 43 percent of Americans harbored some degree of prejudice against Muslims.

During the three presidential debates, terrorism related to ISIS and al Qaeda was mentioned 132 different times according to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). Bigotry and racism were only mentioned 20 times according to the same report.

Issa’s family emigrated from Palestine during the 1980s. She was born and raised in St. Louis.

“I live in North County so it is pretty diverse,” Issa said. “I never had any problems facing racism or prejudice myself.”

Issa is an art major who is scheduled to graduate next spring. She said there is not a big Muslim population on campus compared to other local campuses such as St. Louis University and Washington University. Issa said she has made several close friends in the art department.

“Webster is very accepting,” Issa said. “What I notice is that places where there is activism of feminism, homosexuality and African Americanism is that everybody who has been oppressed knows what it feels like to be oppressed. That is the beauty of oppression is that it brings vulnerable people together to unite.”

Meo was born in Pakistan, but spent most of his childhood in Oman. Pakistan is located in central Asia west of India, and Oman is on the Arabian peninsula south of Saudi Arabia. He later moved back to Pakistan to obtain his bachelor’s degree in information technology and business. Meo’s parents eventually reunited with him when they moved back to Pakistan in 2010.

In late 2015, Meo came to Webster to obtain his master’s degree in human resources management. He said that people in the United States have been friendly to him.

“It’s a good place to live,” Meo said. “Especially for me coming from Oman, then going to Pakistan, then coming to America. So I’m pretty happy with my life over here at the moment.”

Dr. Ali Bagegni said the language barrier and family separation are among some of the challenges international students face. Bagegni is an imam at the Northwest Islamic Center of St. Louis and graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia. As an imam, Bagegni is tasked with leading the five daily prayers at the mosque.

“They were raised in a different culture,” Bagegni said. “Sometimes they have a culture shock. Depending on their personality, sometimes they adjust well.”

For Meo, the bigger challenge was learning a new language when he returned to Pakistan from Oman. While in Oman, Meo and his family lived in an area where many other Pakistanis lived. His family spoke the national language of Urdu, but where he went to school in Pakistan, they spoke Punjabi.

“From Oman to Pakistan, that was a big change,” Meo said. “It was a huge culture shock.”

Both Issa and Meo described their parents as strong followers of Islam. Issa said she grew up going to the mosque every Friday. Meo said his father taught him that Islam would keep him on the right path and out of trouble.

“Islam teaches us to be kind to everyone,” Meo said. “Be nice to everyone. Islam does not teach us to go out and kill people.”

Both students and Bagegni blame the media for negative portrayals of Islam and Muslims for focusing on terrorism.

“Even for extremists who say they are trying to follow the religion, it’s not true,” Issa said. “There is no way, shape or form, any religion tells people to harm others.”

Bagegni said he fears the media and the political rhetoric has done a lot of damage to the image of Islam. He said the media does not mention the positive aspects of Islam and plays up fears of extremism. Bagegni also said he is very lucky to be an American.

“Diversity brings a lot of enrichment,” Bagegni said. “That’s why America is great.”

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