December 3, 2020

Muslim student group celebrates holiday with all faiths

Loud chatter emanated from the University Center’s Sunnen Lounge on Thursday, Nov. 1, as long lines of people waited for ethnic food, henna tattoos or to get their names written in Arabic.

It was the celebration of the Islamic holiday of Eid Al Adha, which the Muslim Student Association (MSA) hosted.

More than 100 students and faculty came to learn about the Islamic tradition and celebration Eid Al Adha.

For MSA President Hanan Rahman, senior, this event was about more than just celebrations. It was a form of diplomacy.

Lines were longest for two artists the MSA brought in to do henna tattoos at the celebration of the Muslim holiday Eid Al Adha in Sunnen Lounge on Thursday, Nov. 1. The club helps promote an understanding of the Islam religion. PHOTO BY GABE BURNS

“Muslims already know how to pray and that stuff,” Rahman said. “But the key thing here is that as MSA we are ambassadors of Islam and we really need, to reach out to the students of Webster and even Webster Groves and teach them about Islam.”

Rahman said the majority of students that have attended the first few events of the newly- formed MSA have been students of faiths other than Islam. And that is exactly what she had hoped.

Rahman also said the country has a false perception of the Islamic faith. Americans usually associate the religion with terrorist attacks who absorbed the media’s attention.

“There is a goal ­— to promote a very good understanding of what Islam is,” Rahman said. “(To be) ambassadors of Islam, to really reach out and tell them what Islam is. The correct Islam is not what you see on the media.”

Rahman grew up in Jefferson County, Mo., and said she took the role of ambassador of her faith as soon as 9/11 happened. She knew she had to prove Islam was not how the media were portraying it after the terrorist attack.

“I stayed out of trouble. Though I sometimes felt like I wanted to do something crazy, because you are in high school and want to do something crazy, it’s sad because I had to stop myself,” Rahman said. “I can’t do that because if I do that they’re gonna say, ‘Muslims are this or Muslims do this.’”

Rahman said besides a few incidents of bullying, her classmates treated her and her faith with respect immediately following the attack.

“They had my back and I loved it. And I felt like I made a difference in their life,” Rahman said. “In case they see anything in the media they can be like, ‘No, that isn’t Islam because we had a girl in our class named Hanan Rahman. And she wore the hijab, she was modest, and if she was a killer like how these people are, she would have killed us a long time ago.’”

When Rahman first came to Webster, she had no intention of starting an organization like MSA. Instead, Rahman chose to focus on her studies.

She quickly noticed she was one of a few Muslims wearing the traditional hijab head covering and dress. But it was her junior year when other Muslim students came to her and asked her to help start the organization.

Rahman was initially hesitant to the request as she wanted to focus on classes. However, she finally agreed to participate as long as she wasn’t president. Instead, a friend of hers was to be president. This friend transferred schools at the end of last year.

Now, Rahman leads the MSA in its first year at Webster’s campus. So far, the organization has been pleased with the results and has 30 active members.

“I really expected a lower number. Especially at Webster, I’ve been a part of so many organizations and we always get low numbers of people at events and attending meetings,” Rahman said. “I always say a word, ‘Alhamdulillah’ — thank God — we get a lot of people. And surprisingly it’s really folks of other faith.”

While Rahman is pleased with the success of MSA so far, she understands there is a long way to go in changing how people speak and think about Islam.

MSA member Rob Polzin, junior, is a white convert to Islam — a rarity in the Muslim community, said Polzin. People usually speak candidly about Muslims before he reveals his faith.  When he identifies his religion as Muslim to others, they are respectful.

“Most people have honestly been great,” Polzin said. “But occasionally you hear some off- handed comment that it is like, ‘If you knew this about me, I highly doubt you’d be saying this.’”

Rahman says this happens often to Muslim women who choose not to wear the hijab or Muslim men who do not immediately look like they are Islamic.

“Just because a girl is not covered or a brother doesn’t look like a Muslim and looks like an ordinary American, doesn’t mean that they are not Muslim,” Rahman said.

Polzin said groups like MSA are needed to prevent stereotypes and offensive comments.

“Whenever there is a negative stereotype about any group — be it religious, ethnic or sexual orientation — the key to getting over those prejudices is to meet people from these groups,” Polzin said. “They’re human beings.”

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