AU’s Muslim Student Association finds balance between community and activism


by Ali Shafi

American University senior Ammarah Rehman sits in the humble office of the Muslim Student Association (MSA) in the basement of Kay Spiritual Center. Surrounding us are stacks of hadiths --sayings-- of the Islamic prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and bags of candies from the upcoming week of tabling on the quad.

Before we get started with the interview, Rehman, who serves as president of the MSA briefly offers me some of the candy and asks me about my day. The casual conversations and passing of a Twix bar brought me a wave of familiarity that I usually only feel when I’m with my Pakistani community at home; a feeling of nostalgia without homesickness. As Ammarah began to talk, it became apparent that her work in the MSA was to continually strike that chord of familiarity with the Muslim community on campus.

“Having a space where you feel at home and comfortable in a private institution that isn’t a commuter makes you feel like you have family,” she said. In Islam, this strong, unbreakable idea of community is known as ummah, and though I had understood the meaning well in sermons and parental lectures, the MSA’s explicit mission truly brought that into my focus. And this small office for Muslim students to make their home is only the tip of the iceberg in strengthening this ummah.

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Islam Awareness Week is hosted annually by the MSA and began on this past Monday. MSA’s across the country often hold Islam Awareness Weeks in which they promote Islamic ideals or raise awareness of issues dealing with Muslims both nationally and around the globe.

This year, AU’s MSA is tackling misrepresented or unrepresented issues such as Uyghur Muslims in Chinese concentration camps, Palestinian and Israeli relations, and Quran verses that have impacted members of the MSA.

“The burden of educating our peers and our society falls on us Muslims, and the MSA here is willing to take it, and that’s why we have different events happening,” said Rehman. She understands that because students are busy and can’t be expected to stop by the office and discuss issues that may not affect them, the MSA is dedicated to giving easier avenues to bring more people into the conversation.

The MSA has been spending the entire week tabling on the quad, handing out candy and pamphlets that promote a broader conversation about the Muslim experience at AU, as well as internationally. They have also held panels throughout the semester about living as a Muslim in America. Panels such as “Living the Black Muslim Experience” or “Muslims in the Media” cosponsored by The BlackPrint highlights the diversity and intersectional identities of AU’s MSA.

“We all think of Islam as having a particular face because that rhetoric has been reinforced by the media so much that I think we’re also trying to dismantle that. [. . .] a Muslim can look like anything,” said Rehman. The MSA’s own E-Board showcases this with the members coming from a variety of backgrounds which Ammarah credits as the influence for their diverse panels and events.

The week will end with Jummah, the Islamic Friday prayer, on the Quad. For the first time in twenty years, the MSA is moving their weekly Islamic duty from the basement of Kay to outside on the Quad.

The idea came after Ammarah talked to Dr. Fanta Aw, Vice President of Campus Life, about “ways the MSA could improve,” and she harkened back to initiatives by the previous MSA at the turn of the millennium to pray outside.

This Friday, the MSA (with sponsorships from Hillel and the Interfaith Project) invites the entire AU community to pray and eat lunch with them in solidarity.

Ammarah has planned on discussing issues regarding the hijab on Friday as well. “It’s like the foot in the door phenomenon [where] once you put in on yourself, it’s not that scary, it’s not that different, and it’s not that exotic. [. . .] Many Americans go their entire lives without stepping foot in a mosque, so what we’re trying to do is bring the mosque to you.”

And in the face of tragedies fueled by Islamophobia such as the recent massacre in New Zealand claiming the lives of 49 Muslims, organizations like the MSA are tasked with the difficult job of bringing people into their spaces and starting a dialogue that non-Muslim students may not be actively looking for.

To Ammarah, these projects are another way to practice her faith with her ummah. “When the massacre happened, it was really heartbreaking, but for me it wasn’t like a ‘oh, we need to be quiet. We can’t go to the mosque’ because I feel like that lets the bigots win,” said Rehman. “As an American, I am going to show up at my mosque.”

American University’s Muslim Student Association is only getting started with their impact at AU this semester. Following the completed renovation of their prayer room, the MSA hopes to put up a photo series of Muslim portraits in the SIS Atrium and a potential graduation celebration. Their Jummah on the Quad event will be held on Friday from 1pm to 3pm, and their prayer room is always open on the Nebraska side in basement of Kay next to their office.