Penn State Intercom......January 17, 2002clip2

Educating others

Local Muslims act as ambassadors
for their Islamic faith

Facts about Islam

By Julie A. Brink
Public Information

For the Muslim community at the University, life is about getting or providing an education, following the tenets of Islam and, in many cases, raising a family.

Julie Belz, assistant professor of German and applied linguistics, is a member of the University's Muslim community. She was raised as a Roman Catholic, but converted to Islam. Belz and her husband, a physician, are raising three children in their faith.

"We try to raise our children the best we can Islamically," she said, "teaching them about God, the prophet, encouraging them to be respectful, to have self esteem, to be confident, full of dignity, (to know) that it is incumbent on every Muslim to seek knowledge."

Although a minority at the University, worldwide, Islam is one of the fastest growing religions. About 1.2 billion people of all races are Muslims, according to widely circulated figures. Of that number, only about 18 percent of them live in the Arab world.

"People need to be reminded that Islam is not a monolithic religion," islam7 according to Timothy Gianotti, assistant professor of religious studies and history, "They don't look the same, they don't act the same."

As an Islamic scholar, Gianotti has been called upon repeatedly by the media to interpret Islam.

"I have lost track of the number of interviews, talks, that I've given for radio and TV, campus and noncampus groups," he said.

Gianotti, who teaches classes in Islam and world religions, used his classroom as a forum to discuss reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"One of the things students have discovered because we dealt very squarely with Islam and its traditions is that they
themselves have become the ambassadors of intelligent conversation among their family and friends," he said.

Gianotti observed that "on the whole, Muslim students on campus have tried very hard to be inclusive. They invite other student groups to their meetings, they attend interfaith events. Some aspects of socializing on campus, such as attending frat parties and drinking, are not appropriate for them, but they are very eager to create a dialogue. They perceive the need to be outgoing."

The Office of International Students doesn't keep statistics on religious affiliations and only about 50 percent of incoming students elect to mark affiliations on admissions forms, according to Sharon Mortensen, interim director of the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs. Of those that did, about 100 identified themselves as Muslims.

Many of Penn State's undergraduate Muslim students join the Muslim Student Association, a group with a longtime association with the University.

"We help educate others as well as ourselves about Islam; our goal is to become more united as Muslims," according to Zubair Malik, president. Malik is a junior majoring in pre-med.

The organization has a listserv of about 300 students. Weekly meetings generate attendance of anywhere between 30 and 50 students, "but we can draw 200 to 300 for our big events," Malik said. Most of the club members are American citizens, Malik said. islam4

MSA activities include a big brother/big sister program, joint events with other clubs, dinners, fund-raisers and participation in volleyball, soccer and basketball teams. The MSA contributes funds to the dance marathon and student organizations and holds an annual Muslim World Fair, Malik said.

Penn State York and Penn State Delaware County also have MSA chapters. Hershey Medical Center has the Islamic Medical Association Penn State College of Medicine Chapter.

Ibrahim Ibrahim, assistant professor in the College of Health and Human Development, has worked at University Park for about three years.

During that time he's been an active member and past president of the Islamic Society of Central Pennsylvania.

The society, which has been around for about 15 years, counts about 130 to 150 registered members, but about four times that many attend some of the bigger religious observance services. Ibrahim estimates that about 500 to 600 Muslims live in State College and about 1,000 to 1,500 live in Centre County.

The majority of them are graduate students, noncitizens, who stay an average of four to five years. They are active in the community as members of the local Parent Teacher Organizations, play soccer, donate books to the library, arrange for blood drives and donate to Goodwill, Ibrahim said.

But after Sept. 11, "it became apparent to me that after all these efforts that people don't know who the Muslims are," Ibrahim said. "After Sept. 11, we felt an urgent need to tell people who we are because people are very apprehensive about the image of Islam being presented in the papers."

On Sept. 11, lbrahim watched the terrorist attacks unfolded on television. His neighbor, a Mennonite pastor, knocked on the door. "We talked about what they should do for an hour in response to what happened nationally," Ibrahim recalled. "He offered his home if there was a personal threat to me."

Ibrahim said he quickly received calls and e-mails from Christian and Jewish friends as well as neighbors and colleagues with supportive messages.

"Two days after the attacks, I was shopping with my wife when we were stopped by a lady whom we didn't know but she recognized that we are Muslims because of my wife's scarf," Ibrahim recalled. "She approached us and said that she is sorry if we have been subjected any harassment by people who vented a misguided anger and that this not the real face of America. She hugged my wife and shook my hand and we were really touched by such a good gesture.

"This is a function of groundwork we have done before," he said, in reference to the community's tolerance and acceptance.

Since then, the Islamic Society of Central Pennsylvania has become proactive about Muslims and the tenets of the Islamic faith.

"We went out and talked," he said. "We arranged for an open house at the mosque, we talked to churches, community groups, we got many invitations to talk to community and civic groups that are not necessarily religious."

Ibrahim said he's been pleased with the community's response. "It was good to see," he said. With the community seeking input, "it was an effort of maturity. They were not lashing out."

Belz has had both positive and negative experiences in the State College community since Sept. 11. "In the weeks after Sept. 11, I feared for our children," she said. "On Back to School Night in the State College Area School District I heard some other parents openly slandering Muslims."

Belz said that American society has caused her to feel constricted in how openly she practices her faith. She said wearing the traditional women's scarf, the hijab, could make her a target. "There have been incidents where people yell things at veiled women in our community, people have been rude to us because of our names (her children have Muslim names)," Belz said. "In the mall, one of the sisters in our community was simply shopping, when she was approached by the police. Another patron mistakenly told police she had a bomb in her purse."

"I'm concerned that wearing the scarf might have an effect on how I was reviewed in my job," she said. "If I showed up for an interview wearing a scarf, employers might be less likely to consider me seriously for a tenure track position. I'm concerned that students and colleagues might express prejudices toward veiled women in the workplace."

"I think I can practice my religion unimpeded," Belz continued. "But it is difficult at points. For example, alcohol is served at many off-campus faculty functions. Muslims are not only forbidden to drink alcohol, we are supposed to avoid places where it its served. It is very uncomfortable for me to participate in work-related functions where alcohol plays a role. I have been present at committee meetings where colleagues have joked about the use of alcohol. Many colleagues are not aware that such things are uncomfortable and even offensive to Muslims. I think it is a question of proper diversity sensitization for the University faculty, staff and community."

Belz recently created a Web page,, carrying information on the basics of Islam to counteract some the misinformation in the wake of Sept. 11.

"We want to practice our religion," Belz said. "It has nothing to do with being distinctive or with blending in."

Julie A. Brink can be reached at

Facts about Islam

Islam is a monotheistic religion. Followers are called Muslims; they believe in God (Allah is the Arabic word for God), whose existence was revealed through the writings of the prophet Mohammed, which are recorded in the Qu'ran.They also honor the prophets of Judaism and Christianity. They believe in a Paradise and a Hell. Islam does not support violence, discrimination or terrorism. It advocates equality and accepts religious pluralism as a fact of life.

There are five pillars to Islamic faith:

1. Declaration of Allah, the one God.

2. Prayer, which they perform five times a day.

3. Fasting: During the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan, Muslims fast from sun-up to sundown.

4. Giving to the poor.

5. Pilgrimage to Mecca.

About 1.2 billion people of all races are followers of the Islamic faith, but only 18 percent of them live in the Arab world. The world's largest community is in Indonesia.

The United States has 1,209 mosques; some 62 percent of them were founded after 1980. About 2 million Muslims are associated with those mosques, including about 30 percent who are converts.

(information from U.S. Department of State's Office of International Information Programs and a Web site posted by Julie Belz, assistant professor of German.)