‘Introduction to Islam’ designed for training


Keynote speaker Ahmad Harwal talks about the basics of Islam to a crowd of individuals Friday at the “Introduction to Islam” event.

Laura Fisher was one of a dozen non-Muslim students who accepted an invitation to listen to Muslim students at Wichita State as they presented their take on Islam Friday evening.

About 40 people attended the “Introduction to Islam” discussion, sponsored by the WSU Muslim Student Association, which featured guest speaker and alumnus Ahmad Harwal, a native of Morocco.

Harwal’s animated talk covered the basic principles of Islam and those who practice it.

Fisher, a senior studying criminal justice, said she grew up Catholic and was largely unfamiliar with Islam before coming to the event.

“A couple other students and I came here because we had questions and wanted to know more,” Fisher said. “We wanted a different perspective. I think it’s important that people learn to try to get along with each other, and there’s so many different ideas about what Islam is.”

That has been a difficulty for Muslims studying at WSU, said Ayat Alashqar — the stark difference between how Muslims are portrayed in the mainstream media and how they see themselves.

“There are a lot of women here at WSU who wear the hijab,” said Alashqar, a senior studying management information systems and one of the event’s organizers. “A lot of students wonder about it. For me, as a Muslim woman, it’s kind of hard to be in class and have everyone look at me weird and without respect. We are just like other people. We’re human and we have a belief that we believe is true, that’s why we follow it.”

Events since 9/11, culminating with ISIS and Boko Haram laying claim to their religion, have been frustrating for WSU students and other Muslims, Alashqar said.

“Islam is not ISIS,” she said. “Just because ISIS claims Islam, doesn’t mean that Islam is ISIS. When people try to understand Islam, they should look less at what the people are doing, and more at what the book asks us to do, because a lot of us are not following the right way.”

The difference, Harwal said, is often found in the culture, not the faith.

Harwal described many of those who take up extreme views of Islam — ISIS, for example — as ignorant people who are taken advantage of by those with money and political agendas, not religious ones. Islam is used to justify horrific actions, he said, because some Muslim people abdicate to others the interpretation of their holy book, the Quran, rather than understanding for themselves.

The difference is illustrated by the different uses of the words “Islam,” “Muslim” and “Islamic.” Islam is the religion, or the ideal of how the faith should be. A Muslim is a person who practices Islam. Islamic describes conformance to the ideal of Islam — therefore, a Muslim person could be guilty of drinking or stealing, but to say Islamic people drink and steal would be an oxymoron.

“I like my religion,” Harwal said about his experience in the U.S. “I’m proud to be a Muslim, and I’m proud to be an American citizen. I abide by the laws, and I pay my taxes, and I’m happy about it. And I think I get something back in return, which is respect in this society. This is a multicultural society. It is not a perfect society, but it is one of the best societies on earth.”

The presentation didn’t go without question or challenge, however. Members of the audience raised questions ranging from the taboo of sex during Ramadan fasting to gay marriage and why more “regular Muslims” weren’t countering the extremists who give them a bad name.

The answers Harwal and other members of the audience offered were satisfactory to Fisher, who said that as a 27-year employee of Head Start, which works with parents from many cultures, understanding where people come from is crucial.

“Listening to this group talk gave me the sense that we might actually have a lot in common,” she said. “When the speaker talked about how positive his experience has been in our country, about how he thinks so highly of Americans and the freedoms we have here — that he feels blessed to be here — that’s not been my perception of Muslims. Coming in here and listening to them talk gave me more respect and interest in understanding them instead of accepting what I hear on the TV.

“I think it’s great that we have opportunities like this here at WSU.”