Islam Awareness Week at Dartmouth

Muslim students and community members pray at the Top of the Hop.

Muslim students and community members pray at the Top of the Hop.

During the end of winter term, Al-Nur — Dartmouth’s Muslim Students Association — conducted a campus survey on “Islam Awareness” through Blitz, offering a $10 gift card for its completion. The survey asked such questions as, “What is the first thought or word that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘Islam?’” and asked students to rate their perception, knowledge, and other opinions about Islam on a scale of 1-5. Throughout the end of the second week of April and the following weekend, Al-Nur held a series of events collectively entitled “Islam Awareness Week (IAW),” presumably in response to the results they received.

The Review interviewed one of the weekend’s organizers, Sharjeel Syed, about the survey and the events. He stated, “The survey mainly gauged interest on campus about learning Islam, how much people knew about it, and what their attitudes toward it were.” He said that most students claimed relatively little knowledge about it, but displayed an interest in learning more. Syed said that, “The attitudes ranged from positive to negative but were on average indicative of ambivalence.”

According to Syed, “The goals of IAW were to spread more awareness about key issues and tenets of Islam through a variety of events, engage in fruitful conversation about the faith, and to provide a more balanced perspective about the practices and ideology of Muslims.” He said that, “There has been good and engaging attendance at our events thus far. I don’t expect people to come to these events and embrace the faith and how we present it blindly, but the fact that people are coming with questions and concerns allows us to have that conversation that have largely been absent in the mainstream media.”

He expressed concern that students at Dartmouth did not think of Islam as a tolerant religion, stating that, “At Dartmouth specifically, I would say the biggest misconception about Islam is that it does not grant certain groups civil rights (women, other faiths, homosexuals).” Sayed believes that, “There is a myriad of misunderstandings in the American public in general,” but that, “Dartmouth students care most about civil rights issues and so many of their comments reflect misunderstandings about Islam in this realm.”

When asked to comment on his own views regarding civil rights in Islam, Syed said that, “Islam spread as a religion that prevented and fought against the denial of civil rights to various groups of people, emancipated people from oppression, and sought equality for all. That is still the message today and forever will be.” He went on to encourage students to “study and understand the faith to a level they would have to study a specific science or humanities subject,” saying that this would erase many popular misconceptions about it.

Emphasizing the importance of being educated about Islam, Syed said, “I would like people to understand that Islam has been around for 1400 years, has almost two billion adherents, and within a few decades will become the largest religion in the world [according to many reports including Pew].” He accused the media and the government of being biased against Islam and portraying it in a negative manner, “There has to be something more about it than the biased and untruthful images of it that our media and government have been providing us with.” He concluded the interview by encouraging student s to explore Islam beyond popular stereotypes, “Before making stereotypes about a quarter of the world’s population, I encourage people to honestly learn about how diverse and rich of a history, culture, tradition, and faith it has.”

In response to an article in the Daily Dartmouth, a few commenters found fault with Islam Awareness Week and the opinions held by its organizers. One writer, calling himself J.D. Smith, asked why there was no, “Jewish awareness week,” or one for Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus. “Fribble,” the well know Daily Dartmouth website commenter, asked, “Where is the condemnation of the outrageous, mass horrors going on all over the world in the name of Islam by Islamists?” He expressed skepticism regarding the motivations of Al-Nur, and wrote, “No wonder there hasn’t been an ‘Islam Awareness Week’ for 5 years…. In the intervening 5 years it has only gotten worse.” Another commenter, ironically calling himself “Arafat,” attacked Islam, citing Quaranic verses and historical evidence. In response to both commentors, someone presumably representing Al-Nur wrote, “Thanks for your comments. Have you come to any events? We would love discuss this stuff more in person =). Please feel free to email the Al-Nur account to arrange a meeting with anyone mentioned above or one of the board members!”

As part of Islam Awareness Week, a bulletin board in Baker Library asked students to post sticky-notes in different categories: “What do you want to learn about Islam?” “How can Dartmouth facilitate an increased understanding of Islam?” “Write down the name of a famous American Muslim!!” and “What do you think when you hear ‘Islam?’” In a reflection of Syed’s ideas about Dartmouth students’ perceptions of Islam, the board saw a variety of responses. One student wanted to learn “how to prepare a hookah,” while another asked to know “why moderate Islam allows its terrorist minority to thrive.” In response to the latter note, another student posted, “Why do moderate [Jews] allow Zionists to occupy Palestinian territory and wage war on unarmed civilians? Terrorism is terrorism is terrorism.” Some students wanted to, “allow a more open, flexible discussion about Islam,” while another demanded that people, “Stop fomenting subtly anti-Islamic rhetoric under the guise of ‘dialog’ and ‘debate.’ Bigotry is bigotry.” Among the American Muslims named where Malcolm X, Richard Reid (who is not American), and Cat Stevens. Some of the things students associated with Islam were beards, peace, terrorism, great architecture, hookah, 9/11, and the Middle East. The last category seems to be a fairly accurate summation of the opinions of Dartmouth students as expressed in the survey, as well as students’ interactions with Islam Awareness Week.