Muslim Students' Association battles misconceptions and stereotypes
On Friday afternoons, Muslim students of Grand Valley State University gather upstairs in the Kirkhof Center. They kneel towards the Kaaba and say prayers in unity with other Muslims around the world.
The Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) has made this prayer time possible by offering support to Muslim students on campus. The mission of the group is simple, said Jenna Stoken, one of MSA’s two presidents.
“The Muslim Students’ Association provides GVSU students with the opportunity to come together in a supportive Muslim environment,” Stoken said. “The MSA also actively seeks to educate and raise awareness about Islam in GVSU and surrounding communities through various events and activities.”
The MSA consists of about 50 to 60 students, including international students and members who have graduated.
“On a personal level, I think we try to emphasize the statement ‘practice what you preach,’” said Amina Mohamed, copresident of the MSA. “That is, as we learn about different values and principles in Islam, we try to embody them within us so those around us can learn from us not only through our words but also actions.”
Nargilya Gasanova, a nursing student at GVSU and vice president of MSA, said the group has a lot of diversity both in the sense that it has members of different sects of Islam and also because the group includes practicing Muslims and some people who are not Muslim at all.
“We have both Sunni and Shia within the group and both on the e-board,” Gasanova said.
In addition, the group has representation from a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities. Some people within the U.S. believe that Muslims are only from the Middle East, Gasanova said.
“There is a misconception that all Muslims are Arab and all Arabs are Muslim,” she said.
Gasanova and Mohamed both expressed that they do not like to stereotype those who are not Muslim as one group, as that is something that they are accustomed to within their religion. Both acknowledged that many people do not have a clear understanding of Islam.
“It can be hard for other non-Muslim students to know a lot about Islam because it is definitely a minority group and one that has gone through stereotypes and generalizations,” Gasanova said. “It gets tough for a non-Muslim to know any Muslims and to fully and comprehensively understand the religion and the people.”
This semester, during the week of March 10, the MSA will be hosting Islam Awareness Week. The week will consist of different speakers and discussions that will focus on Muslims in the media and women in Islam.
Gasanova said that one of the main events of the week will be a day where scarves are passed out to women around campus to wear on their heads like the traditional Muslim hijab. At the end of the day, there will be an opportunity for all those who participated in the event to discuss their experience while wearing the hijab.
“Ignorance, yes it exists, but GVSU does a pretty good job of promoting understanding and diversity on campus,” Gasanova said. “We are finally, very slowly, getting to a point where it is not considered to be appropriate to talk negatively about the group.”