Students from a Christian college share their Muslim experience
Two women wearing hijabs appear on a projection screen. Through a video call, Jasmine Smith is joined by another Northwestern College graduate, Marly Melsh. Both are converts to Islam.
Two current college students, Numon Gafurov and Banin Rezaie, both from Middle Eastern countries, sit in rickety chairs in the loft above the Old Factory Coffee Shop in Orange City for Community Conversations, which the owner, Steve Mahr, started to create a safe space for civil dialogue about contentious topics.
“Tonight, we specifically wanted to hear personal stories from some of our Muslim friends and neighbors,” he said. “I believe very strongly that when we are afraid or don’t understand, our fear is rooted in misunderstanding. So if we want to eradicate fear, we have to begin to understand, and the only way to begin to understand is to start to get to know the people that we’re afraid of.”
In the most Republican county in Iowa, Islam is not a popular conversation unless it’s taken to the extreme.
“Please don’t ask if we support ISIS, OK?” Gafurov said. “Because I was asked already if I support them.”
Gafurov, a freshman from Tajikistan, and Rezaie, a sophomore from Afghanistan, are Muslim, which makes them part of a very small minority of students at Northwestern, a Christian liberal arts college, strongly connected to the Reformed Church in America.
Rezaie came to the United States in 2013. She was the first Muslim student to attend Pella Christian High School in central Iowa. What she misses most about her home country is waking up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning to the sound of the first call to prayer that breaks the silence with the rising sun.
“I am from a very strong Muslim family,” she said. “I am a Shia Muslim. We pray three times a day, and then we do pray together because my mom believes, if we pray together, we stay together.”
Just like there are different ways to be a Christian, a Hindu or a Jew, not all Muslims are the same either.
“I grew up, not in the strong Islamic Muslim family,” Gafurov said. “No one in my family prays five times a day. They don’t pray at all. I started praying when I was 18,” he said. “I just started praying and I stopped after seven months. I don’t know why I stopped. I guess, I’m an idiot.”
The crowd laughs.Rezaie leans over. In a hushed tone she says, “You can start again, Numon.”
“Yeah, I can start,” he said. “I’m afraid that I’ll just stop again. So I just need to come to this myself.”
Smith and Melsh, the two Northwestern graduates, had vastly different experiences with Islam since they were new followers in the religion.
Melsh, who now lives in Minneapolis, became a Muslim during Ramadan over seven years ago. Like Smith, her conversion was informed by academic study to a point.The more she read, the more she experienced inner peace through Islam that she couldn’t find in Christianity.
“Luckily, I have a really supportive family that’s just like do what you want,” she said. “I know not everyone has that. I come from an agnostic family, so they believe in a higher power, but they don’t believe in organized religion. My mom was like, whatever avenue connects you spiritually and makes you a good person, I’m all for it.”
But for Smith, there was a certain amount of fear tied to identifying herself as Muslim around people she knew. After she converted to Islam, she studied abroad in Oman, an Arab nation where Christians are a small minority. While there, she began wearing a hijab as a sign of modesty and servitude.
“When I came back to Northwestern for my graduation, I did not wear it,” she said. “I was advised by numerous people not to share that I converted because of fear of how people would react and treat me.”
Now that she lives in Bahrain, she wears a hijab all the time because of the tiny country’s proximity to Saudi Arabia, where it’s mandatory for women to wear not only a hijab but also a niqab that covers everything but the eyes and an abaya, which is an all-black robe.
She points out that this is a socio-cultural issue in Saudi Arabia, and the same rules do not apply in all Muslim countries. For Smith, covering head-to-toe has improved her body image and made her less self-conscious.
“Socially, there is this expectation of women to look and appear a certain way – with makeup, have your hair done, look good, be Kim Kardashian-esque, if you will,” she said.
That’s her take on American culture. Being Muslim also places certain expectations on women like dressing modestly, but it’s a way of life she embraces.
Community Conversations are ongoing at the Old Factory Coffee Shop. The next event will be on Monday with a guest speaker from Lutheran Social Services in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, talking about the influx of refugees and what communities need to know.