Local Muslim community confronts negative perceptions

Muslims in State College say they are hoping to counter negative perceptions of their religion that they believe are fed by news reports of terrorist attacks.

One of the challenges faced by Muslims is the contrast between different cultures around the world where Islam predominates and the religion itself, they point out.

According to a Pew Research Center estimate, there were 1.6 billion Muslims in the world in 2010, accounting for 23 percent of the world’s population. It is the second-largest religion in the world by number of adherents after Christianity, with 31 percent of the population.

Local Muslims note that people not familiar with Islam might associate the cultural traits of conservative countries such as Saudi Arabia with the religion.

For example, in Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to drive and have only recently been allowed to run for some local elective offices. Last year, women were allowed to vote for the first time, in municipal elections. In other Muslim countries, such restrictions don’t exist.

“When it comes to culture and religion, you have to make sure you’re not getting confused between both, because that’s a bad representation,” said State College resident Khaled Enab, 29, president of the Islamic Society of Central Pennsylvania and a doctoral candidate in energy and mineral engineering at Penn State.

The society serves the area’s Islamic community with prayer services and social gatherings. It is located in the College Heights neighborhood of State College.

After prayers at the society’s gatherings Muslim women are encouraged to engage in halaqa, a lecture to empower women in the community that is given by female members on a rotating basis.

Brenda Khayat, a member who converted to Islam from Catholicism, said the news media seems to mention religion solely when it concerns Middle Eastern people. She is the mother of Zahare and Zakariya Khayat, both active in the Muslim community.

It’s as wrong to link terrorists to the religion of Islam as it would be to connect Ku Klux Klan members to their religion, she explained.

At Penn State, the Muslim Students’ Association has meetings and social events, in addition to prayers each Friday at the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center. It draws between 50 and 100 attendees per event, according to President May Ayad, a senior from Clarion majoring in graphic design.

She said the association is a safe haven for Muslims on campus and that it is trying to combat society’s assumption that Muslim women are repressed.

Ayad explained that women’s garments are not supposed to limit their life and that wearing them is a personal choice. Sometimes the culture of a Muslim country influences how much the women’s clothing covers them, she said.

The most commonly seen piece of clothing on Muslim women is the hijab, a headscarf that covers the head and neck. “It portrays modesty first and foremost — not just modesty of the head or the body, but it’s also supposed to be modesty of the tongue,” Ayad said.

State College resident Zahare “Zico” Khayat, a junior majoring in biological science at Penn State, said the media often alter the accurate meaning of words, such as jihad, which means struggle but is used in the media to mean holy war.

The religious text of Islam, the Quran, was originally written in Arabic. “Education is key because there are words that are in Arabic that people don’t understand,” he said.

He is to be the president of Alpha Lambda Mu, the first national Muslim fraternity chapter at Penn State and the sixth in the country, once it is recognized by the university. The fraternity’s headquarters is at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“Everything in life is basically decided for me by my religion. It’s from God, to God, for God,” Khayat said.

To Zahare Khayat, the mandatory five daily prayers that take place before sunrise, before noon, after noon, in the evening and at night, are reminders that he’s here for the purpose of God.

However, taking time out to pray throughout the day can be a challenge during the workday in a non-Muslim country.

“By default, people don’t know that you have to pray five times a day. You have to make them aware,” said the secretary of the Islamic Society of Central Pennsylvania, Zakariya Khayat. A State College resident, he is a graduate student in the department of materials science and engineering.

“I have to prove Islam to myself more than others,” he added.

The society does not have an imam, or religious leader, but that doesn’t discourage the estimated 500 attendees who congregate at the society for Friday prayers, according to Zakariya Khayat. The five members of the executive committee rotate to give sermons based on availability.

Gatherings at the society every Saturday evening draw families and people of all ages for prayer, food and socializing. The Arabic language predominates in conversations.

Responding to the proposal by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to bar Muslims from entering the U.S., Enab said the country would lose strength in its diversity. According to a Pew Research Center estimate, there were approximately 3.3 million Muslims in the United States in 2015, about 1 percent of the population.

“Our religion is against any racism. If somebody uses racism against us, that won’t harm us, it will harm our country,” said Enab, who was born in Columbus, Ohio, but grew up in Egypt, where he spent 21 years before moving to State College in 2008.

“After the Muslims, whose turn is coming?” he asked.

Victoria Arabskyj is a Penn State journalism student.