This week, students at UT have hosted day and evening events meant to create awareness and clarify crucial misunderstandings held about Islam as part of Islam Awareness Week at the University.
These events are aimed to tackle current issues for the Islamic community. For example, on Monday the women of the Muslim community here at the University of Texas tabled at the West Mall, asking passersby if they were interested in trying on the hijab. The hijab is an Arabic word that literally means screen or curtain. In Islam, for both men and women, hijab is the physical and the metaphysical practice of modesty. Although hijab is an abstract concept, women traditionally practice hijab by wearing a headscarf, something that has been a cause of discrimination and hate crimes. While curious students tried on the hijab, women on UT’s West Mall engaged with their fellow longhorns about the misunderstandings of the hijab and what the concept truly means: empowering women. More broadly, Islam Awareness Week seeks to join Muslims from various Islamic schools of thought, many of whom experience conflict both on this campus and around the world.
The cooperation of Muslim Longhorns on campus, exemplified by Islam Awareness Week, contrasts with the relationship between different Islamic groups around the world, many of whom face sectarian violence and injustice. Just like any act of violence and injustice, sectarian violence is an act that disrespects race, creed, color, ethnicity, religion or class. However, since the Soviet War in Afghanistan, this form of violence has escalated in the Muslim world.
Such violence plagues much of the world and the death toll is rising into the hundreds of thousands as a result of the wars and civil conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bahrain and Syria. In fact, over 650,000 deaths have been ascribed in part or in whole to sectarianism, and that’s a conservative estimate.
It’s easy to be desensitized in the face of such a large number of deaths, but the grief that friends and family of the deceased face as a result of this violence is very real, though difficult to imagine and describe. As a result, families and communities have been torn apart, leaving a lasting impact. This grief can either serve as a call for unity or become a cause to deepen the division between Muslims.
Here in America, sectarianism among the Muslim community is not an alien concept. Though we do not succumb to violence to express our animosity, we eat separately, pray separately, spread malicious words and institutionalize discrimination in places of prayer and other organizations. The division we have in the Muslim community affects the broader community here in America, too. For example, the beliefs that breed sectarianism have created political spheres that push U.S foreign policy in directions that could jeopardize American values. A report published from the directorate-general for external policies under the policy department in the European Parliament, titled “The Involvement of Salafism/Wahhabism In the Support and Supply of Arms to Rebel Groups Around the World,” found that the Salafi/Wahhabi movement led gulf states like Saudi Arabia to support and supply arms to terrorist organizations around the world. Wahhabism is an ultra-conservative reform movement credited for inciting sectarian division and violence. The relevance here is that gulf states like Saudi Arabia hold American interests, which complicates United States’ foreign relations because these rebels groups often engage in sectarian violence.
However, slowly but surely, young Muslim Americans are pushing for unity across the U.S.
What has made this Islamic Awareness Week especially ground breaking is that it is organized and facilitated through the Texas Muslim Council, of which I am the founder. The Texas Muslim Council, composed of the presidents of all the Muslim organizations on campus — there are six in total — was founded to unite, empower and organize student groups representing different sects of Islam. This unprecedented union has brought together organizations that were once disunited. The very differences that have caused sectarianism and the deaths of many are the very differences that are appreciated here at University of Texas, and even though Islamic Awareness Week is coming to an end, this work toward unity should not.