Islam and Iowa

By Annie Harmon

It’s late afternoon at Iowa State University’s Parks Library. The last beams of sunlight are pouring through the large glass windows and the building is alive with busy students. Meredith Andersen, an employee of Parks Library and the Dean’s Office, is putting away books. She’s been looking for the rightful home of a book for 30 minutes, to no avail. Frustrated that her exhaustive search is failing, she takes one last look into a vacant back room. To her surprise, it isn’t vacant. Five men are kneeling on the ground, with their heads toward the east wall.

For Andersen, a student of Islamic history, this spotting makes perfect sense. These men are bowing their heads in prayer toward the east, or toward Mecca. Mecca is the spiritual center of Islam, located in the Hijaz region of modern day Saudi Arabia.

To the average Iowa Stater, this might take someone aback. Sure, centrally located here in Iowa, Islam doesn’t have the weight it might have in bigger cities.

“For those coming from rural Iowa, it can be surprising seeing prayer. Some universities even have designated prayer places on campus,” said Dr. Michael Christopher Low, assistant professor of history at Iowa State.

The University of Iowa recently opened prayer rooms on campus in February of 2016. The University of California, Berkeley also has a meditation room that Muslim students and others can use for prayers. Iowa State has yet to follow the trend.

“I noticed that while they were devout Muslims, they were in a secluded area. They weren’t trying to make it a big deal, it was their time for their faith,” said Andersen.

Iowa State is known for its free speech zone in the past, and in August of 2016, was renamed Agora. All of Iowa State is now free speech, free expression. In the fall of 2015, the police were called to free speech zone for Matt Bourgault, a traveling street preacher. Some of the statements made by Bourgault were to many, offensive. Something that you don’t see often though, are Muslims participating in this type of preaching.

Andreas Haffar, senior in journalism and international studies with a focus in the Middle East, made a trip to Jordan this summer. There, he witnessed many differences between Jordanian Muslims and American Muslims.

“There, everyone is practicing prayer, everyone is involved. I have a newfound respect for them,” said Haffar. “They face all these outside pressures in the States.”

The differences extend to spreading faith as well. Why do we see a Christian push for conversion in the Agora of ISU, but not from the Muslim community?

“I believe there are two factors for that not happening. First, the majority of the people in this country are Christian,” said Haffar. “Muslims aren’t supposed to go out and convert, they aren’t supposed to go out and do something like that.”

Rami Shoukih, public relations officer of the Arab Student Association, knows firsthand that it is difficult to get used to living in the United States. Shoukih is a junior and an international student from the United Arab Emirates.

“The ASA helps people from the Arab world transition to the United States,” said Shoukih. “But we are also here to help outsiders learn more about our culture and language.”

The Iowa State Arab Student Association is always looking for more students to get involved and learn about the Arab world. Their next event is a lecture titled, “Jesus & Islam”, with speaker Imam Molhim Bilal. The lecture will be held in the Campanile Room of the Memorial Union, on Friday September 30. It starts at 7:30pm.

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