It is not difficult to find evidence for misconceptions surrounding Islam. A simple Google search or a sensationalist headline will prove this true, which is why the St Andrews Islamic Society (ISoc) presented Discover Islam Week. Through a series of events last week, ISoc aimed to provide opportunities to learn and ask questions about Islam. By focusing on what Islam’s values are and can be, rather than on denying stereotypes, ISoc’s inclusive, friendly and ambitious attitude will continue to inspire students to challenge their expectations long after Discover Islam Week is over.
By St Andrews standards, ISoc is a new society at just six years old. However, during that time ISoc has grown through the hard work of its committee to create a community that supports Muslim students and puts on impressive events. Kawthar Ali, a member of this year’s committee, admits that though the society is “fairly small” it has established itself as an on-campus presence. “We’ve made a name for ourselves in St Andrews.”
In recent years, ISoc has developed from having a purely social agenda to responding to the need for a more religious focus. ISoc president, Khadeeja Khalid, says that their aim is to find “a happy medium because, the thing is, you’re there for religious support but also you need there to be a community because St Andrews is so tiny and the Muslim population is very small.”
This community ethos also stems from a recognition of what religion means to students. Ms Ali says: “At the end of the day we realise that religions are not just pray, fast and stuff. We know it’s a way of life. So we integrate that into our events as well.” ISoc does this by ensuring that the society caters to the individual needs of Muslim students, such as those from international backgrounds. Ms Ali says that it can be difficult “living abroad in a community that isn’t reminding you of the religion.” She speaks from personal experience, saying: “I’m so used to listening to the call of prayer back home, and then I come here and it’s not available and there’s no one here to remind me to pray… [ISoc can] help bring those values into the community.”
Ms Khalid adds that the society also endeavours to support “people who might be further along in their journey of religiosity [as well as] people who maybe don’t really affiliate with the religion but are born Muslim and say they don’t agree with certain aspects of it but still feel a connection [to it].” By being receptive to feedback and working tirelessly in the community, ISoc has been able to grow each year.
However, both Ms Khalid and Ms Ali admit that there are difficulties associated with being such a small society, particularly one located in a small town like St Andrews. For instance, it can be difficult to find speakers who are willing to travel all the way to Fife. One workshop leader even cancelled at the last minute because he had wrongly assumed that St Andrews was in Edinburgh. Yet, despite these challenges, this year’s Discover Islam Week still managed to offer a variety of events.
Ms Khalid also believes that ISoc’s size is in other ways a great strength because it means that the society is more closely knit. Ms Ali agrees, saying that the society’s attitude has become one of perseverance. “What we’ve been doing this year is not just sitting around and complaining that we’re a small community or that we don’t get a lot of funding. We work around [these difficulties],” and “that’s what’s made [ISoc] stronger.”
Even a brief look at the number and scale of events ISoc has presented this year is enough to see that their ambition and determination has undoubtedly paid off. During Freshers’ Week, Ms Khaid remembers: “A lot of people were saying, ‘You guys are crazy for doing an event every single day!’ We were crazy, but it was really good because [our events] provided an alternative to doing the standard going out every night. You get tired of that, and you just want a day to unwind.”
Another highlight of last semester was a conference on feminism in Islam, which ISoc ran in conjunction with the Feminist Society. The event proved hugely popular, with several hundreds of students in attendance and still more expressing interest on Facebook. Ms Khalid believes that the event showed students that ISoc was not only capable of putting on good events but also events that are open to everyone.
Corrinne Latti, a first-year IR student, agrees that the conference was both hugely successful and accessible. “As a woman who honestly does not know much about Islam and the culture surrounding it, the conference was incredibly illuminating,” she says. “They took the myth that Islam is somehow demeaning to women and utterly destroyed it. I remember, during the conference, realizing that I wanted desperately to remember what the women were saying, and scrambling to take notes on my phone. Overall, they encouraged me and the other women in the audience to embrace faith, be it Islam or another, and not let it be a hindrance to my feminism.”
This commitment to diversity is indicative of the attitude ISoc takes towards non-Muslims. At last Tuesday’s Rising Islamophobia talk, a visiting member of FOSIS (the Federation of Student Islamic Societies) commented on how rare it was to actually see a majority of non-Muslims at an event run by a university’s Islamic society. Ms Ali says that not only are non-Muslim students encouraged to attend ISoc events but they are also welcome to ask questions, even “bizarre” or “really silly questions.” Ms Khalid adds: “We’re happy to answer them.” Ms Ali continues: “People ask, and it’s nice because you get to explore your own religion as well. At the end of the day, we’re students, not religious [leaders], so our information is also minimal. It’s a learning process for everyone.”
During Discover Islam Week, ISoc made an extra effort to open up to non-Muslims with their Can you last a Muslim Fast? event. Non-Muslims who managed to fast throughout the day were given free entry to a night of delicious food, spoken word poetry and the opportunity to watch the prayers. Ms Khalid says: “I think people learn by doing. You might see friends who go through Ramadan and think, ‘Why are they doing this, starving yourself for no reason?’ But people go on a detox, you know a juice detox or whatever. It’s [like] that, because it’s detaching you from food, detaching you from worldly things. It makes you more contemplative.”
As regards Islamophobia, Ms Ali says that changing misconceptions can often seem like an impossible task. “It’s a lot of work if you go to each and every single person and say. ‘We are not this and this and this,’” she says. Ms Khalid adds that by always focusing on what Islam is not, there is never a chance to focus on the actual values of the religion. When people misperceive Islam as a religion that advocates terrorism, saying ‘No, it does not’ repeatedly never changes the conversation; it only perpetuates the debate. As a result, ISoc’s events are consciously geared towards showing the positive aspects of Islam; Discover Islam Week was a perfect example of this approach.
However, what was striking about talking to Ms Ali and Ms Khalid about Islamophobia was how ordinary they viewed such attacks. A few days after the Paris attacks, Ms Khalid says she was travelling with friends to Perth on a train and “we had some incidents there, but, you know, it’s okay. We handled it.” Ms Ali adds: “We’re aware of them [Islamophobic attacks], but personally we haven’t really [experience them].”
ISoc’s response to Islamophobia on campus is threefold. Firstly, ISoc acts as a mediator between the University and students who have experienced religiously-orientated attacks. Secondly, along with Donald McEwan, the University chaplain, ISoc offers support. “We always try to have an open door,” says Ms Khalid. “People can email us. People can message us on Facebook. [We keep it] confidential, and we have lots of University links so we can help people if they are experiencing any hate speech, any hate crime or even just personal issues.”
Thirdly, ISoc has adapted in response to the Prevent duty, an anti-radicalisation strategy that requires all higher education institutions to have a Prevent officer. The mandate has been widely criticized. Ms Khalid says: “To know for a fact that we’re being surveyed as Muslim students shouldn’t be normal, but it’s a reality and the University has to abide by it.” However, she believes that it is imperative that ISoc responds by “trying to create links between [the society] and the Prevent officer because it is so important to know the guidelines and know what it entails.”
When asked what Islam can teach the average student, Ms Khalid immediately says respect. “I think a lot of people often give religion as a whole a bad rep for intolerance, but what people don’t see about Islam is that regardless of whether you agree with somebody’s lifestyle or background or whatever you should still treat him with the same respect as you would treat anyone else.”
Discover Islam Week taught students about many things, but perhaps above all ISoc’s inexhaustible hard work, patience and willingness to answer questions demonstrates how respect for others is and must be an active commitment made by all students.
More information about ISoc can be found on their Facebook Page, St Andrews Islamic Society. You can connect with the ISoc committee either by messaging their page on Facebook or by emailing islam- firstname.lastname@example.org.