Two Identities, Two Challenges

April 20, 2006

Georgetown’s Muslim Chaplain, Imam Yahya Hendi, flourished his palm pilot, tapping away with a stylus. In his office, decorated with woven verses from the Qur’an and Muslim calligraphic art, the electric device seemed out of place while he discussed Islam’s relationship with the West. But soon tiny print appeared on the screen: the palm pilot contained the entirety of the Qu’ran and the Bible, completely indexed. Its tiny speakers even produce recitations of holy verse.

Hendi is the spiritual leader of Georgetown’s Muslim student population, and his palm pilot is a reminder of the idiosyncrasy they share with Georgetown: the attempt to reconcile religious faith with western secularism. Most of them Americans, many only the second or third generation to live in the United States, these students must find a balance between the daily rigors of prayer and class. Though resources provided by the University ease their task, they still face the challenge of adapting their identities to Georgetown’s culture as de facto ambassadors of today’s most politicized religion.

Hendi, perhaps chief among these resources, was the first Muslim chaplain at any university in the United States when Georgetown brought him to campus in 1996. Born in the West Bank under the Israeli occupation, Hendi has studied Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Middle East and the United States, where he has become a citizen. Hendi is confident in both his faith and his relationship with culture and politics in the United States. An important figure in American Islam, he regularly testifies before Congress, comments to the press and and issues fatwas against terrorism and human rights violations performed in the name of Islam around the world. Georgetown’s Muslim students admire his engagement.

Despite its Catholic roots, Georgetown has been known for fostering Islam on campus for several decades. Hendi noted that in addition to hiring the first Muslim chaplain, Georgetown is the only university to provide a Muslim prayer hall, or musallah (located in the basement of Copley Hall). Georgetown also provides Muslim students, who make up about 2.1 percent of the undergraduate population, optional Muslim housing and helps celebrate Muslim holidays.

“Part of it is that Georgetown is very comfortable with overt expressions of religiosity,” Farooq Tirmizi (SFS ‘08), a Muslim student from Pakistan, said. “The Catholic heritage of religiosity combined with the American heritage of everybody-should-be-fee-to-practice-their-religion. It’s very a blessed thing.”


Georgetown’s commitment to providing facilities for religious expression doesn’t necessarily separate Muslim students from the libertine party culture of many Georgetown undergrads. Muslims are forbidden from drinking because alcohol interferes with reason, and they are discouraged from dating because of a prohibition on pre-marital sex and an ideal of modesty and separation of the sexes. But Georgetown’s Muslims vary in their responses to these general rules.

Hafsa Kanjwal (SFS ‘08) was born in Kashmir before her family moved to Ohio when she was six years old. Now, she considers herself a moderate, finding common ground between her Islamic identity and her American one.

“[Islam] is the defining factor in my life,” Kanjwal said. “There is definitely some challenge trying to reconcile your two identities. Muslims have a real dilemma—am I going to date? Am I going to drink?”

Many Muslims on campus choose not to drink, and many (though fewer) choose not to date, or at least avoid western-style dating, according to Abed Bhuyan (SFS ‘08), the current President of the Muslim Student Association.

“The truth is that two individuals can get to know one another very well without having to be dating. For example, hanging out in groups,” Bhuyan said. “To really understand it, you’d need to ask yourself if ‘dating’ the way we know it is the only path to marriage. There is no room for premarital relations/sex in Islam: dating, in a pop-culture context, is conducive to that. Typically, when a man and a woman are courting each other, there should be someone else there as a pseudo-chaperone, hence the hanging out in groups.”

Despite agreeing with Bhuyan that pre-marital relations are forbidden by Islam, some Muslim students do date.

“I want to have the kind of commitment that marriage has,” Maryam Mohamed (SFS ‘06) said. “Does it mean that I haven’t been out with guys? Absolutely not.”

Some Muslim students avoid parties where drinking occurs altogether—and they implore Georgetown to provide more alternatives to weekend imbibery—but many feel comfortable attending these events without drinking. Often, being one of the few people without a beer in hand results in a positive discussion of Islam. Pardesi remembered a time during his freshman year when he spent 20 minutes talking about religion with a student he might not have met otherwise.

“Georgetown is good at putting people together and finding that dialogue,” he said.

Another cultural challenge, this one limited to Muslim women, is the decision to wear hijab, modest dress that is characterized by a headscarf. The consensus among female students is that, while the hijab is generally required by faith, individual women have the leeway to decide whether to wear it.

Khadijeh Zarafshar (COL ‘08), the vice president of the MSA, has worn the hijab since she was 10 years old. Her mother began wearing it when she converted to Islam to marry her father, an Iranian who came to the United States originally as a student. She considers her headscarves fashion accessories; when we spoke, she wore a white, silk scarf with silver embroidery. It is also a point of pride—she is the founder of a Facebook group called “the Hijabi crew.” But the hijab is also part of her identity.

“It’s a symbol of my faith,” Zarafshar said. “Now, more than ever, it’s not something that immigrants have carried with them. As the new generation grows up, we’re trying to reconcile Islam with our American identity.”

Mohamed, meanwhile, stopped wearing the hijab after a year abroad in Turkey, where secularization laws make it illegal to wear headscarves in public buildings, including the university where she was studying. When Mohamed returned to Georgetown, she decided that the headscarf no longer suited her identity, though her religious beliefs have not changed and she appreciates the lessons she learned wearing it. She said she still supports other women who do choose hijab.

“It’s a difficult thing to do—you are a public symbol of your religion every day,” She said. “It was a hard decision [to stop wearing the hijab]. You’re looked at when you’re wearing it, you’re looked at when you take it off.”

Kanjwal, the moderate, does not wear a headscarf regularly, though she says she wants to wear one as she grows older.

“I don’t think I’m at the stage where I’d be able to reflect the character the headscarf entails,” she said.

“The internal hijab is so much more important,” Mohamed said, speaking of a general attitude of modesty and piety.

Finding their identities, female Muslims on campus have to work out an appropriate balance between modesty and American mores.

“Be your own self,” Kanjwal advised. “You can bring the two ideals [of Islamic and American culture] closer together. They might not contradict each other, and maybe they sometimes overlap each other.”


Being Muslim within a non-Muslim majority, especially in the United States, brings with it the added expectation that you represent, or at least can explain, a diverse religion practiced in many different ways across the globe.

“This is the biggest challenge: Stereotypes, mischaracterizations, not being able to differentiate between culture and religion,” Hendi said. “Human rights abuses in Arab countries do not mean Islam is violent. If a faith is misrepresented by its believers, you should not blame the religion.”

Despite their offensiveness, Georgetown’s Muslims understand where these stereotypes come from.

“A lot of [ignorance] has to do with the rhetoric of the [Muslim-majority] governments,” Zarafshar said. “When they’re saying [human rights violations] are part of Islam, it’s not the listener’s fault. Their relation with Islam has been negative on some level. It’s understandable, if not justifiable.”

Zarafshar has shared the experience of many campus minorities who find that their personal identities quickly become a teachable moment.

“Professors expect me to talk about my religion,” she said. In her “Problem of God” class, she was regularly called upon to discuss Islam. “It really forced me to know and articulate a variety of issues. I was uncomfortable with it for a while, always being singled out.”

But some American Muslims say that this expectation also brings benefits.

“Islam in America is stronger because it is intellectually rigorous,” Pardesi said. “There is more pressure—it’s helped us define ourselves and understand our religion.”

Coming from a different background, Tirmizi qualified that point. He grew up in Pakistan, where he attended a madrassa, or Muslim religious school, and also received a separate secular education.

“American Islam faces very different challenges,” he said. “In America, you don’t have the pressure on the Islamic community to look at what kind of political or economic systems work under Islamic morality. Muslims in America have to think much more about their relationships with non-Muslims.”

This kind of thinking has led the MSA at Georgetown to look beyond its original goal of ensuring that Muslim students can practice their faith on campus. Now, it is taking on the challenge of public relations. Following the “Cartoon Controversy,” when Dutch newspapers printed cartoons disparaging the prophet Mohammed and caused a backlash throughout the Muslim world, the MSA hosted a panel of experts, including the Dutch ambassador, to inform students.

“Muslims can’t shut themselves off from the country,” Bhuyan, the MSA President, said. “Individual Muslims need to take it on themselves … to be ‘ambassadors of Islam.’ The five pillars [of Islam] are the bare minimum.”

The pillars Bhuyan refers to—a testament of faith, prayer, charity, fasting during Ramadan and making the pilgrimage to Mecca—are the core of Islam. Though religion is, in one students words, still “the heart and soul of the MSA,” the pressures of politics have forced Muslim students to reconsider their presence within the campus community.

“If you’ve only hung out with Muslim students, you’ve done a disservice to the Muslim community,” Pardesi said. “It’s incumbent on you to promote a positive image of Islam.”

Salik Ishtiaq (SFS ‘07), vice president of GUSA, is one of the more prominent Mulsim students on campus, among the first elected to a leadership post at Georgetown. A Pakistani citizen, he lives with his family in Panama, and he worried that he would not be able to integrate with American college society before he came to Georgetown. Now, as a student leader, one of his goals is providing kosher and halal food for Jewish and Muslim students, and better vegetarian options for Hindu students, in the dining halls.

“I don’t want Osama Bin Laden to be the spokesperson of the Muslim world,” Bhuyan said. Muslims in America, he believes, can put a better public face on Islam. “People recognize me as Abed, a person, a Muslim.”


“There is a fundamental distinction that hasn’t been made between Islam and culture, and a cultural interpretation of a religion,” Zarafshar said. “I identify with my American heritage, not my Iranian heritage. [But] for me, my American heritage is not really a rejection of anything else.”

As Hendi noted, finding that distinction is another challenge for Georgetown’s Muslim community. When asked about the oppression of women in Muslim-majority countries, they are quick to point out that it is the culture of countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran or Afghanistan that causes oppression, not the Qur’an, which proscribes no compulsion in religion. There are only two ayat (Qur’anic verses) about hijab, Kanjwal said, but many more about social justice.

“Culture is only important for the context it provides,” she said. “Islam is a very dynamic faith and not monolithic at all.”

When Ishtiaq came to Georgetown, he drew many convictions from his conservative Islamic background, including the idea that an Islamic state was the best form of government. But as he came into contact with Georgetown’s Islamic scholars, including respected professors like John Esposito and Yvonne Haddad from the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, he began to change his thinking about what it means to be Muslim.

“It was an internal struggle for myself. There was a different mentality to the Islam that I had grown up with,” Ishtiaq said. “Identifying Islamic culture is difficult because it is a religion that wants you to keep your own culture.”

In the end, Georgetown’s Muslim students will keep working, and waiting, to gain a better understanding of their faith for themselves and others.

“When people find out I’m a Muslim, what are they thinking? That’s the million dollar question,” Pardesi said.

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