The Bridges We Build: Connection Through Understanding
By: Olivia Taylor
Mourning the loss of her unborn child, Nida McKee struggled to find solace in her new city of Auburn, Alabama, after moving to the southern town from her home in Indonesia.
McKee said she felt at the time, 1996, that she had no support other than from her husband, a professor at Auburn University.
The week after her miscarriage, she heard a knock at the door. The mailman or a neighbor, she assumed.
But when she opened the door, there was a crowd of college students, mostly white, standing with cards, casseroles and caring faces.
“None of us are exempt from struggle,” said McKee. “Muhammad struggled, Jesus struggled, but they also provided us with a way to handle those struggles in each other regardless of where we come from or who we are.”
Today, she and other Muslims in the Auburn area find similar support and friendship at the Auburn Islamic Center, a large colonial-style house on Armstrong Street.
On Friday masjid, a time of congregational prayer, monthly potlucks or Sunday school, mothers and fathers with rambunctious children running around gather at the Center. Friends embrace and catch each other up on their weeks as they enjoy a strong sense of community.
The entrance of the Center is lined with shelves filled with shoes. Flip-flops, tennis shoes and high heels reflect the individuality of the people inside.
The women and children are upstairs, while the men are preparing and setting out the food for the monthly potluck, featuring a variety of foods just as diverse as the variety of shoes at the entrance.
“The Islamic Center provides several services to the local Islamic community and the community beyond just us,” said board member and professor Salman Azhar. “We offer prayer five times every day, as well as wedding services and counselors.”
Azhar added, “We also invite members of other communities to come and learn more about Islamic practices. We interact the most with different religious groups, Habitat for Humanity projects and community initiatives.”
Born in Pakistan, Azhar worked there for a couple years as a civil engineer. He then moved to Bangkok for his master’s degree and worked in Thailand and Hong Kong. In 2001, he moved to United States to get his doctorate before joining the Auburn University faculty in 2006.
“When I was moving to Auburn, I didn’t have a very positive view about the state of Alabama,” said Azhar. “But after moving here, there was not a single day that I considered moving. People in Auburn are very open, and they accept Auburn Muslims as a pillar of the community.”
The Auburn Muslim Student Association is another outlet for the Auburn Islamic community to connect with and support each other and to reach out to various groups on campus and in the community.
The Auburn Muslim Student Association holds events such as “Meet a Muslim” This event is held at a local park where members of the community can go, eat with and build relationships with others.
Auburn University online education project manager and Muslim Student Association adviser Asim Ali said, “From the math context, we see that 1 percent of the U.S. population is Muslim. So that means if I have a room full of 100 Americans, one person is going to be Muslim. But from a social context, that means that one Muslim has to meet 99 people in order for us to be able to say that every American has met a Muslim.”
Ali added, “That means my 15-month-old has to go out and start knocking on doors to meet 99 people that I haven’t met in order for us to say that every American has met a Muslim. And let’s be honest, that’s just not happening. So the reality is that most people who talk about Muslims or Islam have never even met a Muslim.”
The number of Muslim students on campus has grown considerably in the last few years, coinciding with Auburn University’s internationalization efforts. According to the AU Office of Institutional Research, the Islamic student population has almost doubled since the early 2000s.
“The message of Martin Luther King Jr.’s beloved community resonates so closely with what Islam says in terms of responsibility within the community, and so there’s a natural fit for Muslims to participate,” said Ali. “But sometimes Muslim individuals within the Auburn community feel the burden of representing a billion and a half people, so it can be exhausting and tiring, especially if you’re not seeing results.”
Ali’s most interesting and common feedback he gets from students at beginning of the semester is that they notice that nobody sits around them in the class or students move their desks away or they don’t engage with each other.
“I always ask them if they’ve tried engaging,” said Ali. “When you go to class and see that one student who’s different, who’s not white, who might be that one in 100, do you engage with that student? People have to make steps to inclusion in their own way, when they’re most ready, even if it’s smiling at someone in class that no one else is smiling at.”
While many people have made these steps toward inclusion, acceptance and tolerance in their lives and in their communities, misunderstandings of one of the most prominent religions in the world is still prevalent in westernized cultures such as America.
“I've had both positive and negative experiences here at Auburn in regards to my faith,” said secondary education student Shaby Hakemy. “One of the earliest and most disheartening ones was actually during my freshman year. After a couple of weeks moving in with my random roommate, she asked me if I wanted to attend church with her.”
“I told her yes, as I had never been to a Christian service and always wondered what it was like. She gave me a look I still have engraved in my brain, and said, ‘Wait, you're not a Christian?’ So once I told her that no, I was a Muslim, she got quiet. A week later she moved out without telling me.”
While discrimination occurs, faith leaders are working to build bridges and find solutions.
Hakemy said, “I'm building bridges and the beloved community every day by just being myself. I am more than my faith. It is a big part of me, but it’s not the only thing about me that people should know or contribute me to. I think people often put a picture to an idea. And, unfortunately, when it comes to Islam, that picture isn't pretty.”
Hakemy added, “But now when people who know me think of Islam, maybe they think of me. Maybe they remember they have a friend out there who loves them, who is Muslim, and who doesn't fit the mold of the stereotypes Islam has been given.”
Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that the world would become one, united beloved community.
“At the beginning of January, when the travel ban was proposed on six countries, we had 40 members from other churches come on that Sunday in support of us,” said Azhar. “ In order to become the beloved community, we need to understand each other and learn other perspectives, which will also broaden your horizons and your own perspective, so that way we can view each other as brothers and sisters.”
Photograph By Olivia Taylor