By Kendra Davis
Co-Editor in Chief
On Tuesday, the University celebrated its 10thannual World Religions Day. Eighteen days ago the New York Times published a piece entitled “Muslims from Abroad are Thriving on College Campuses,” which featured the University.
Collectively, these two facts became an exigency to take a deeper look at the cohort of students here on campus who identify as Muslim, and their experiences with attending a predominantly Catholic institution.
In the five years between the Fall 2003 and 2008 semesters, the number of newly accepted students who reported themselves as Islamic nearly tripled, from 22 to 60. Over the last two years, that number has dropped just slightly to 54.
Though indicating a religious affiliation is optional and thus not reflective of the entire student population, the statistics parallel the theme present in the Times article, whose author, Richard Perez-Pena, noted that, “the flow of students from the Muslim world into American colleges and universities has grown sharply in recent years, and women, though still far outnumbered by men, account for a rising share. No definitive figures are available, but interviews with students and administrators at several Catholic institutions indicate an even faster rate of growth there, with the Muslim student population generally doubling over the past decade, and the number of Muslim women tripling or more.”
Perez-Pena observed that the vast majority of the students he interviewed felt more comfortable attending a school with a religious affiliation rather than no affiliation at all, even if the predominant religion was not their own. He quoted Maha Haroon, a pre-med undergraduate at Creighton University in Omaha, saying, “I like the fact that there’s faith, even if it’s not my faith, and I feel my faith is respected. I don’t have to leave my faith at home when I come to school.”
The sentiments of some University students were not too far off from Haroon’s, yet others expressed the opposite.
“I chose Villanova primarily because it was a Catholic school,” says senior math major Anum Nadeem, from Lahore, Pakistan. “Coming from a conservative country that had somehow found itself embroiled in a battle between extremism and liberalism—among other things—I thought exposure to a different religious environment was pertinent, and I haven’t once regretted my decision.”
Religion was also a factor for junior civil engineering major Salima Bouhriz, but in a different way than Nadeem.
“The fact that Villanova is a Catholic school did influence my initial interest because I wasn’t sure what to expect,” says Bouhriz, who is from Morocco. “I had never visited ’Nova, or any other university in the U.S. for that matter, being an international student and all, so I was wondering how strong the affiliation was to Catholicism and if I would be required to hide my faith as a Muslim.”
international student and all, so I was wondering how strong the affiliation was to Catholicism and if I would be required to hide my
faith as a Muslim.”
For ’09 alumnus David Heayn, however, who was born into a nominally Catholic household and attended Catholic school from pre-kindergarten straight through to his Master’s in History here at the University, religion was a not a factor.
“Other than the fact that I already knew what Catholic education was like, I do not believe religion influenced my initial interest in the school,” he says. “It was the value of education, location and what the university had to offer me academically and financially that most interested me.”
Heayn’s lack of special attention to religion halted as he hit the ground running once he got on-site in terms of improving diversity and multiculturalism on campus. In addition to eventually becoming the head of the Multicultural Students League, a first-generation Diversity Peer Educator, and a guest lecturer in religion classes at both ’Nova and Cabrini, Heayn became the president of the Muslim Students Association (MSA) in 2008.
“During my tenure in these positions, I took it as a personal duty to educate others about the cultures and religions of the world,” he says.
That self-imposed duty, which he cultivated as much as possible during his six years here, has since become a career, and his passion for interfaith dialogue is as strong as ever.
“I would say in general I have dedicated my life not only to understanding religion and culture but also the points at which we fight with, learn from, and love each other,” Heayn says. “I am always looking for opportunities to further educate the world and break down misconceptions.”
Yet Heayn is not the only one trying to change the campus consciousness on matters of religion. Even though the MSA dissipated a year after he graduated, sophomore Aisha Chughtai has worked extensively this semester to revive the student group.
“I went to the activities fair freshman year looking for something like the MSA,” says Chughtai, who was surprised to find nothing.
Recognizing a need for an easier way for Muslim students to on campus, at the beginning of this semester, she emailed Kathy Overturf, associate director of Campus Ministry, and inquired about starting an association.
“I know a few other Pakistani Muslims on campus,” she says, “but I’ve found that most of them are from Middle Eastern countries like Yemen, and I want to know more about their specific practices and cultures since they’re not all the same in every country.” Chughtai is sure that it is not just non-Muslims who can learn from such affiliations. She remembers approaching one student who she knew was Muslim and asking him if he would be interested in something like MSA, but he was slightly curt and very adamant about not being interested.
“I think some Muslims on campus are not interested in identifying themselves as Muslim,” she says, “but I’m not judging. There are only about seven to 10 of us who are really interested in getting it started.”
The newly-revived MSA had its first meeting just two weeks ago, and it was a success, in Chughtai’s opinion.
“It’s been really draining, but I think it’s worth it,” she says.
While Chughtai is trying to create change by increasing Muslim students’ cohesion and transparency on campus, others are combatting stereotypes whenever the chance arises.
“The most common misconception I’ve heard is the ties the media is trying so hard to make between Islam as a faith and terrorism,” says Bouhriz. “I try to explain to all those who bring it up that Islam is a religion of peace and does not support the murder of innocent civilians. I also try to point out that the actions of some radical, deranged, self-proclaimed ‘Muslim’ should not be representative of an entire race (Arabs) or religion (Muslims).
Despite her efforts, from time to time Bouhriz and others face some startlingly unaware students.
“Students asked why I chose to come here and why I didn’t stay home or go to an Islamic institution,” she says. “Some students also asked really personal questions like ‘why don’t you wear the hijab’ or ‘why don’t you practice such and such if they are beliefs of Islam.’ Some questions were offensive and some were downright ignorant, but I try to answer everyone and represent my faith as best as I can.”
Administrators and faculty are also pushing to make Villanova more and more of an interfaith community.
For the past 18 years, the College of Nursing has had a relationship with the Ministry of Health under the Sultanate of Oman that has resulted in nearly 200 Villanova nursing alumni now becoming leaders in Oman’s healthcare administration, practice and education.
When the College’s new home, Driscoll Hall, was erected, the Sultanate donated the international students’ room that is used for prayer and other activities, though it is not just restricted to Omani international students.
Additionally, a prayer space is housed in John Barry Hall for anyone who wants to use it.
Campus Ministry, who hosts the annual World Religions Day, started an interfaith coalition back in 2001 when students, in response to 9/11, asked why we, as Villanova students, are required to learn so much about the Christian faith but not others.
While the implementation of programs, policies and facilities promoting religious diversity on campus has made the campus increasingly welcoming to non-Catholic students, Dr. Hibba Abugideiri, an associate history professor and director of the Center for Arab & Islamic Studies cites another potential reason for the increase in Muslim students.
“The increase of students who identify as Muslims at VU is actually not surprising at all when you look at the growth of Islam bothglobally and nationally,” Abugideiri says.
In fact, Muslims are considered the fastest growing group in the world and Islam is the fastest growing religion in the US, as the Secretary of State recently acknowledged
While statistics differ from source to source, most, including our government, estimate the number of American-Muslims to be 6 million; a quarter of them are converts, and, of these, African-Americans predominate, though Whites and Hispanics make up a significant proportion.
“Another possible reason for the increase is that students who were raised Muslim but did not necessarily identify as such, are rediscovering their religious identity while at the University,” says Abugideiri.
“This is typical for many students. Whatever the case, as VU seeks to further diversify its campus at both the faculty and student levels, increasingly Muslims are joining others in calling VU home,” she says.
Given this trend, many students, both Muslim and non-Muslim, believe that now is a better time than ever to engage in interfaith dialogue, even if these conversations are at the most basic levels.
“Particularly on campus, I would definitely recommend getting to know a Muslim personally—getting to know their beliefs and background,” says Chughtai. “I think personal experiences and connections definitely help people to get rid of the stereotypes. Since there are so few of us here, if you don’t get the chance to meet someone who is Muslim, it’s important to just educate yourself.”