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Muslims on campus say Utahns are mostly accepting, respectful

May 3rd, 2011 Posted in Arts and Life

“I am amazed at the similarities between Islam and the LDS faith. The conservative environment here in Utah makes me feel close to home.”

By Rhett Wilkinson

LOGAN — Allia Abu-Ramaileh strolls down a campus sidewalk at Utah State University wearing a soft, hooded scarf, an Aggie ice cream in hand, and receives both smiles and prolonged stares. Three years have passed since the engineering major decided to further indicate her devotion to Islam’s standards of modesty by donning a scarf designed to cover her hair.

“Just embracing it, while being a minority, is something I enjoy,” she said about being Muslim in a region where most of her peers are Christian.

Over the years, fundamentalist Islam terrorist organizations have twisted their standards of a belief system which has given Abu-Ramaileh a way to become close to her God — a convolution which has often been associated with a mainstream faith which she said encourages peace. But the current USU Middle East Club president may have had an idea about where at least some of those snickers were coming from.


Horrific events related to radical, fundamentalist Islam terrorist organizations have occurred since the turn of the century—including the tragic events in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, and al-Qaida-related bombings in London in July 2005. Among such cases is a conflict which sprung on American soil just one month ago.

On March 28, three suicide bombers killed 20 United Nations workers in an uneasy province in southeastern Afghanistan, with the Taliban claiming responsibility for the assault. Thousands of other Muslims crashed the surrounding streets at the same time.

The violence and protests came in retaliation of Pastor Terry Jones and his Florida-based Dove Outreach Center Christian congregation burning several Qur’ans in the belief that the Islamic scripture “promotes terrorism.”

On the eve of Sept. 11 last fall, Jones promised to restrain from doing exactly as much after several members of President Obama’s cabinet, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, made personal requests through the airwaves and even by personal phone call, pleading for the pastor not to do so.

Such events have continued to encourage a sentiment that national and local media members, as well as the public, have described as “Islamophobia,” the hatred or fear of Muslims and their politics and culture.

However, whether it be out of such consternation or out of an additional reverence for another’s beliefs from those outside the faith, a higher devotion to the standards of Islam has only helped garner additional respect for many, including Abu-Ramaileh,


As she learned early in her tenure at USU, Abu-Ramaileh faced heaps of criticism when it came to being a minority of another sort: a woman studying in a male-dominated major. Being in such conditions placed Abu-Ramaileh in what she describes as one of the most “offensive” experiences of her life.

In the fall of 2007, the engineering major left her two Muslim parents – one, a father with an Islam tradition that dates back centuries; the other, an American convert of 32 years – and her hometown of Bountiful, Utah, for USU. Her first semester here, after receiving the highest quiz score in a calculus class that included just one other female, the negative remarks began to be directed her way.

“Because I got a higher score than anyone else among those who thought I was ditzy and not so serious, they were surprised,” she said. “I was a bit offended by that.”

That’s when the scarf came out of the closet.

That same fall, Abu-Ramaileh made the decision to dedicate herself to the higher Islam standard of modesty by donning the head-covering article of clothing. It was a decision that silenced the critics — whether or not that muting came out of the critics’ respect for Abu-Ramaileh’s religious convictions, or out of a fear or misunderstanding for the faith she was now clearly representing.

The criticism for being a minority in engineering was quelled either way, she said.

“After I wore the scarf, people were not surprised to see I got these awards or did well on a test,” she said. “I was taken more serious as to why I had success. Students believed I could succeed as a woman in engineering. There was no more making fun of me not being able to get as high a score on a test.”

But Abu-Ramaileh said while the bit of clothing — and the deep religious ties that run within its lining — mean much more to her than avoiding a few snickers on a base-level calculus course, arriving at such a conviction hasn’t been an easy one.

She said in high school it became ever-difficult for her to wear the scarf because of the maturity level of both her peers and herself. In college, people are more accepting — part of the process in making an easier transition for the scarf to become a part of embracing her faith, she said.

Meanwhile, the reported putrefaction at a national level has not been enough to convince a variety of those interviewed throughout the Cache Valley community to pin such fundamentalist-related tragedies upon the Islam faith as a whole.


While three individuals admitted that they may have a more negative or fearful perception of Muslims following the retaliation in Afghanistan, all of the 14 non-Muslim USU students and Cache Valley residents who spoke to the Hard News Cafe about their perception of Islam and its adherents, said they had not previously seen a sign of “Islamophobia” at the school, nor the region in which it lies.

Senior Alex Baldwin counts himself among that group. “Honestly, I felt really bad for the Muslims,” he said of a group which adheres to the teachings found in a book which Muslims believe to have been revealed over the course of 23 years to the prophet Muhammad. “I really don’t support any kind of book-burning of any kind. I don’t care what the literature is.”

The English major said he was stunned to learn that Jones insisted that in hindsight, he would have continued with the Fahrenheit 451-like commission.

Indeed, just minutes after learning of the retaliation in Afghanistan, Jones shirked any semblance of responsibility, telling CBS: “In regard to the riots that have just taken place, the actions of breaking in, setting on fire, and killing at least 10 individuals so far is highly unacceptable for the government of the United States.”

Baldwin’s assessment came with a Constitutional caveat.

“I guess, you know, the freedom of speech – he had the right to do it; it’s within the rights of our Constitution,” he said. “He didn’t do anything illegal, he didn’t do anything incorrect as far as political issues go, but I felt that it was unnecessary and brought a really bad representation of the Christian church. I mean, I don’t think Christ ever burned a book.”

Baldwin said he was particularly touched by those of the Muslim faith during his LDS missionary service in Spain. Baldwin said Muslims would always greet missionaries with a smile, while touching their hand to their heart as they shook hands with the missionaries. It was an experience that Baldwin said he cannot match with what he often sees on TV.

“I really can’t connect my experience with those people in Spain, with the way that media are portraying the things that go on in the Middle East, and putting it under the stamp of Muslim,” Baldwin said. “I don’t think that’s true. I think a lot of it is fabricated to get a certain response.”

Ryan Toth, a Christian and member of the Fellowship of Christian University Students (FOCUS) at USU, said he believes both the university and its valley ranks well when it comes to prejudice against another faith, as evidenced by his own recent experiences.

“I think that, in general, there is less fear here than in other demographics,” said the religious studies major. “I am going to the Middle East this summer and I have had more negative reactions from adults than from any student here.”

While half of the students interviewed said they blamed the media first for its framing of the religion, Toth had a different culprit in mind.

“I think that any negative view of Islam is, in part, influenced by the government,” he said. “We are at war with an Islamic nation and, unfortunately, we, as a country, need Muslims to be our enemies.”

On home soil, such tension, Toth said, comes from the side which he aligns with theologically.

“It seems that in America there is more prejudice from Christians against Muslims than vice versa,” he said. “Honest education about the Islamic faith could help decrease this prejudice since most of the bigotry that I have seen comes from a misunderstanding of Islam.”


Abu-Ramaileh and several others of the faith added to the sentiment of those outside Islam who said they have not sensed the sentiment as strongly within the community.

Logan Islamic Center council member and USU graduate assistant Adel Abdallah is among that group. “As a Muslim student, living in Logan and attending USU, even though I grew up my entire life in a Muslim country, I still feel really comfortable with the kind and respectful people here in Logan,” wrote the engineering major.

“I am amazed at the similarities between Islam and the LDS faith. The conservative environment here in Utah makes me feel close to home. I can say that I had never treated badly here because of my religion.”

Abdallah said such conflicts, like the tension some radical Muslims felt following Jones’ actions, arise in the defense of a gift that all seek. “Freedom is not limitless,” he said. “There must be some limits for our freedom when it comes to the others’ rights, such as the rights to live and to worship God. Can I kill my neighbor just because I have freedom?’”

Abdallah said peace is afforded as individuals openly discuss their beliefs with one another.

“Some would hesitate to talk about other religions or even historical events,” he said, “so why would freedom be limitless when it comes to Islam? In this case, the freedom would be discussing any topic in Islam or the Qur’an in a respectful way, but not through burning the Qur’an as a way to disrespect and intentionally offend others.”

Bedri Cetiner, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at USU, also said he has felt the welcoming arms of the valley, including USU.

“USU and the surrounding area is presenting a wonderful environment for me as a Muslim,” Cetiner said. “I have never encountered any prejudice whatsoever.”

Cetiner said he participates in an interfaith group consisting of USU faculty with various religious backgrounds. It’s a group that the man of Turkic descent, who can trace his Islamic roots on both parents’ side back to 10th century, said he is grateful to be involved with.

“Some of my best friends are among these guys, who are not Muslims,” he said. “We meet every other week and have great discussions on various topics, which are enlightening, fruitful and fun.”

Among those friends is Nick Eastmond, a faculty member in instructional technology and learning sciences in the Emma Eccles Jones College of Education. Eastmond received first-hand experience in living around Muslims, including in the home of separate families, during two of his teenage years while Eastmond’s father educated overseas. Eastmond and his family lived in Nigeria during the 1963-64 school year, followed by a stay in Zaria as he attended college there the following academic year.

They were years of experience that has since left the instructor to say that he has sought ways to praise the faith ever since.

“They are a faith that is worldwide, and they are very influential and have contributed a lot to our civilization,” he said. “A lot of our mathematics and astronomy and history of ideas came through Islam. When the Europeans were stagnating, the Muslims were booming and carried the classical Greek writings forward. The west had to go learn these things from them. Then, the Renaissance started to take off.”

History aside, a paradox remains for the globe-trotter.

“There are some really tough things here,” Eastmond said. “I couldn’t believe why (Jones and the Dove Christian Outreach Center) could burn the Qur’an, but I couldn’t believe that there would be this response on the other side of the world. I have a really favorable impression of the Muslims, and so it’s just interesting to see how this is playing out,” he said.

In the midst of such a rather serious game, Eastmond said he enjoyed being able to see the comparisons between that of Islam and his own religion.

“In real terms, they are a very impressive religious group, they have devoted followers, are very much committed to their values and are incredibly congruent with the values we have in the (LDS) Church,” he said.


Thus, Muslims within Cache Valley — Muslims like Abu-Ramaileh — continue to walk on campus and elsewhere, and eat Aggie ice cream, and go to calculus class, feeling just fine.

Not that she, nor Abdallah, Cetiner, or any of their comrades mind taking a break from any of the three to answer any questions that one may have.

“I have always tried to give people the benefit of the doubt when they ask something, that to some may be offensive, but to me, I just look at it as a learning and sharing opportunity,” she said. “Many times people are just curious or want to learn about Islam and their questions are innocent.”

Abu-Ramaileh understands that openly speaking to others may seem revolutionary to some.

“Here in Logan, many people have come up and asked ‘oh, your husband allows you to come speak in public?’ things to that effect,” she said.

Such is a battle that Abu-Ramaileh said she faces continuously.

“I hate to see these big events tied to our religion,” she said of the public’s association of terrorist accounts with the mainstream faith. “The only way to cage the rumor perspectives, is just meeting Muslims. Then, you won’t tie all the others to TV, or if you do have those crazy ideas in your mind, then you see a normal Muslim in the mainstream, and you’ll have at least a new perspective.”

Then those snickers will continue to remain only as those chocolate bars found in Abu-Ramaileh’s ice cream cup—nothing more.


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