New Muslim Student Association aims to bridge gaps, break stereotypes

Bethany Brunelle, Muslim Student Association vice president wearing a hijab, a sign of modesty in Islam.

Suhaila is a devout Muslim in the religion of Islam. She reads the Quran. She wears her hijab, a veil that covers her hair and neck, as a sign of modesty. She prays to Allah (“God” in Arabic), five times daily.

Bethany Brunelle is a lively UAA student studying journalism and public communications and music. She is Caucasian, is an American and is a Republican. She was raised conservative in a Christian home.

What do Suhaila and Brunelle have in common? They are the same person.

“I’ve always wanted to convert to Islam, which is difficult to do in this country. For years, I continued going to the Christian church unhappy,” Brunelle said. “One day, my Muslim friends invited me to a mosque, and for the first time I felt like I was at home.”

Brunelle chose the name Suhaila when she converted to Islam a year ago, so she is known by both names. She considers her role as vice president of the new UAA Muslim Student Association to be an honor.

“Our club is open to all students, no matter the religion, race or gender. It’s a good way to get together and enjoy our time on campus,” said Romal Safi, MSA club president and biological sciences student.

Like many members of MSA, Safi, who came from Afghanistan, has only been in the United States for a few years. He enjoys the new culture and attributes it to his favorite high school teacher.

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To break the ice, his teacher asked, “Hey, where’s your gun?”

Stunned at first, Safi joined in the banter and said, “Oh damn! I left it at home today.”

“Many of these students have never experienced the freedom of speech and religion, the freedom we have here in our great country, the U.S.,” said Osama Abaza, UAA professor and chair of the Department of Civil Engineering and MSA advisor.

Members of the UAA Muslim Students’ Association organized events at their first meeting held Oct. 3, 2012. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE MUSLIM STUDENTS’ ASSOCIATION, TAKEN BY UAA STUDENT, ADIL RAJA.)

“They want to feel the warmness; they have in an incubator to come to and grow from that, into this new culture,” said Abaza.

Though MSA is a place where Muslim students can bond, pray and grow together, the ultimate mission is to bridge the gap with the other faiths and beliefs on campus.

Abaza said that there is a need for people in general to remember that religion, tradition and politics are all separate. Sometimes people mix religion with culture when the two are completely different.

People who come from an array of cultures and political backgrounds fall under the main umbrella of the religion of Islam. According to recent statistics released by the United Nations, Islam is the second-largest religion in the world.

The MSA on campus is part of a larger entity — there are MSA organizations across the United States at universities, such as Yale University and Stanford University to name a few.

Abaza believes the knowledge young Muslims pick up in the United States will benefit them when they return to their native countries. MSA is a great opportunity for that.

“Back home these students wouldn’t want to associate themselves with any organization. It’s too stressful. It might relay issues for them,” Abaza said. “For them to come to these meetings, they are showing so much courage.”

For more information, visit the main MSA website at www.msanational.org. A campus MSA Facebook page will be available next week. MSA plans on meeting once a week. If interested, contact Nawait Ali at 444-8986.