What Happens When a Catholic University Says: Welcome, Muslims

It’s not the kind of story that usually makes the headlines, but in December 2006 about 20 Muslims, all students at the University of St. Thomas, rang the doorbell at the Summit Avenue home of the university’s president, Father Dennis Dease. Dease was just back from surgery after falling and breaking his shoulder during an…

It’s not the kind of story that usually makes the headlines, but in December 2006 about 20 Muslims, all students at the University of St. Thomas, rang the doorbell at the Summit Avenue home of the university’s president, Father Dennis Dease.

Dease was just back from surgery after falling and breaking his shoulder during an evening stroll near campus. The students brought him some flowers, candy and a get-well card. He invited them in and thanked them for their gifts and thoughtfulness.

But as one of those students recalled in a recent interview, “We told him he shouldn’t be thanking us; we told him we are the ones who should be thanking him for the opportunity to attend St. Thomas.”

The get-well visit resonates with the comments of many St. Thomas Muslim students who were interviewed this spring about their experiences on campus. While there are exceptions, the interviews revealed some common themes:

•           Muslims feel welcome on campus and are treated with respect. The students give especially high marks to their professors in general and, more specifically, to Campus Ministry, the Dean of Students Office, Vice President for Student Affairs, Office of International Student Services and Dease.

•           They are keenly aware and frequently discuss issues related to the broad topic of terrorism, often linked in media accounts to the word “Islamic.” The students are thankful that most Americans, and especially those at St. Thomas, do not equate being Muslim to supporting terrorism or being a terrorist.

•           Just as there is a range in how Catholics and other Christians observe their faiths, there is a range in how St. Thomas Muslim students observe theirs. While not all students interviewed pray five times a day, for example, all of those interviewed observe Ramadan, a month of fasting, prayer and charity.

•           For those who do pray five times a day, finding a quiet spot for prayer can be a challenge, but the Muslim students figure it out. Often, they will find an empty classroom or use the Meditation Room in Murray-Herrick Campus Center.

•           Muslim Tommies often are from other countries, so they deal with differences in culture as well as faith. They really miss their families, friends and favorite foods.

•           Muslims who closely observe their faith traditions do not drink alcohol, and they don’t seem to miss it. It could be one of the reasons that disciplinary problems with Muslim students don’t exist at St. Thomas.

The university’s position on students of other faiths is addressed indirectly in its convictions statement: “We respect the dignity of each person and value the unique contributions that each brings to the greater mosaic of the university community.”

Campus Ministry addresses the topic specifically. Its Statement of Ecumenical Principles includes, “We welcome those of other faiths who come among us to nurture those of their own tradition.”

How are those policies put into practice? One clue is found at an annual ceremony on the lower quadrangle each fall, called the “Interfaith Blessing for the New School Year.” The service now includes prayers from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions.

A Muslim Student Association was created at St. Thomas following the events of Sept. 11, 2001. More recently, St. Thomas established the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center, which last fall moved into one of the university-owned homes on Grand Avenue. The center, which sponsors speakers and other programs to promote understanding between Muslims and Christians, is co-directed by Dr. Terence Nichols and Dr. Adil Ozdemir of St. Thomas’ Theology Department.

During Ramadan, the university has reserved classrooms for prayer. Muslims also are welcome to use the quiet Meditation Room in Murray-Herrick Campus Center.

“You always want to be careful about stereotyping anyone, but the Muslims at St. Thomas are really model students,” said Karen Lange, dean of students, whose office often deals with disciplinary cases at the university.

Lange, who is co-adviser to the Muslim Student Association, said her impression is that the Muslims do feel welcome on campus. While she sees a tendency for international students to socialize with other international students, she sees the Muslim students fitting in and forming strong friendships within the broader student body as well. “They are great to have here,” she said.

Sarah Davis, the international student adviser for the English Language Center on campus, said that many Muslim and other international students who come to St. Thomas are initially apprehensive about Minnesota’s winters, but “generally they come to have a very positive experience here, and often say they’d like to stay and enroll as regular students. Unfortunately, many of them can’t, for a variety of reasons.”

Donald Beyers, an assistant director of Campus Ministry who also teaches theology classes, said having Muslims on campus is “a great resource for St. Thomas. They often are a great source for conversations in our classes; I’ve learned a lot from them.”

Campus Ministry, he said, is very clear in its policy not to engage in proselytism. “If any student would ask for information about the Catholic faith we would provide it, but our role is to support students in their respective faith journeys,” Beyers explained.

Campus Ministry offers Muslim students the use of its Common Ground house on Summit Avenue for social gatherings and meetings. “They are extremely grateful, and we do whatever we can to help them,” Beyers said. Catholics and Muslims share much in common, he added, including a respect for many of the same values.

Dease put it this way: “We are fortunate to have on our campuses the presence of Muslim students. Like Jews and Christians, they are the spiritual descendents of Abraham. We have found inspiring their personal witness to the value of prayer, fasting (during Ramadan) and alms-giving. Their presence provides our community with the opportunity for interreligious dialogue that can lead to deeper mutual understanding.”

Fostering that understanding was one of the reasons the university hired Ozdemir. As co-adviser to the Muslim Student Association, co-director of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center and member of the Theology Department, he is an adviser and friend to many St. Thomas Muslim students.

Ozdemir, a native of Turkey, taught Quranic and Arabic studies there for 26 years at the Dokuz Eylul University, where he also received his Ph.D. and did postgraduate work. He was invited to St. Thomas to help establish the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center and to teach. (There has been a waiting list for his classes on Islam.) He also is working with Nichols on a book dealing with the morality of war. The book will feature essays from both Muslims and Christians and should be published in a year or so.

What are the Muslim students at St. Thomas studying? How did they happen to come here? What do they like about life on campus and in Minnesota, and what could be better? Ten of them – from Somalia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Egypt, and Edina, Minn. – were kind enough to share their stories:

Amran Farah is a senior who is majoring in political science and minoring in English and philosophy. She hopes to attend law school. A native of Somalia, she lived for a short time in California and moved to Minneapolis when she was in middle school.

She comes from a family of 11 children – six boys and five girls – and all those old enough have graduated or are attending college.

“All people on campus are polite, but there are some who are especially welcoming,” she said. One unusual experience happened during her sophomore year. She was walking by the C-Store in the student center when a man walked up and gave her a Bible and said a prayer. She kept it and said it came in handy for an upcoming theology class.

She is on the executive board of the Muslim Student Association, and previously served as its vice president and president.

She has been in some classes where she was called on to explain her faith and culture. “In one of my philosophy classes I wasn’t just the only Muslim, I was the only woman, and I think about half of the class were seminarians. We had a lot of theological and philosophical discussions and I don’t think I could have experienced that somewhere else. It was respectful and one of my favorite classes.”

Tamer Feteha, a native of Egypt, is a junior at the American University of Cairo and is at St. Thomas for a year as a study-abroad student. His father is a dean at the American University in Cairo, and his mother has worked as an accountant.

While he found rowing on the river with the crew team “too cold,” he said when he leaves Minnesota he will miss the snow. Coming to St. Thomas gave him his first experience with the stuff, and he built a snowwoman, went sledding and snowboarding, and went snowmobiling with friends from Brazil, Egypt and Fargo, N.D.

“That saying about Minnesota Nice, I have found that to be true,” he said. “People here have been extra nice. I love it here.”

Feteha said that the St. Thomas Food Service offer to prepare box dinners for Muslim students during Ramadan “was very thoughtful.”

Ziad Kham, 24, graduated in May with a master’s in software engineering. A native of Morocco, he first came to know St. Thomas when he was studying English at the ELS Language Center here in 1999. Two years later, he enrolled in Ripon College, a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin where he majored in world religions.

“I had just started at Ripon when 9/11 happened,” he recalled. “I was just adjusting to the culture, and my English was not that good. Nothing offensive happened, but there was some tension. There were a lot of questions, like, ‘Why did they do that?’ Two days after the attack, we had an interfaith program at Ripon and three of us … a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim … read from our holy books. I read a portion from the Quran about peace.

“There was a lot of shock and uncertainty, but things are better now, although the war in Iraq hasn’t helped being a Muslim here in the United States. I have felt very welcome at St. Thomas and in the Twin Cities. I think people are more open-minded here,” he said.

In his studies at Ripon, Kham said how much he learned about the similarities of of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. “But I think sometimes the focus is much more on the dissimilarities than the similarities.”

Khaled al-Kanderi, 27, is from Kuwait and will graduate from St. Thomas with a master’s in curriculum and instruction. He completed his undergraduate studies in Kuwait and taught there four years. He became acquainted with St. Thomas through the ELS program on campus.

“My friends in Kuwait were concerned and some said I should be careful about coming to the United States, and I said, ‘Well, let’s see,’” al-Kanderi said. “Some warned that they might hate me here. It has been totally different here than that; it has not been that 100 percent. Especially after 9/11, some from my country were scared to come to the United States. When I tell my friends how it is here, some of them are surprised.”

He hopes to go on to earn his doctorate in education. “I have liked all of my classes here and my professors are great; they are so interested in me and want to help.

“I like how freedom and democracy work, and the respect for ideas. These are things I want to bring back to my country,” he said.

Thamer Alfallaj, 28, is from Riyadh, the capital and largest city in Saudi Arabia, where his father is a businessman and where, 100 years ago, “my family was poor, very poor. They had nothing.”

Like a number of St. Thomas Muslim students, Alfallaj first became acquainted with the campus through English classes at ELS.

He tells this story with a bit of a smile: “When I was looking for a place to study, my brother-in-law, who lived in the United States, recommended Minnesota. He said the people would be really nice, and the weather is cold so you stay home and do your studies.”

Alfallaj graduated with a computer science degree in 2004 from King Saud University and is studying at St. Thomas for a master’s in software engineering.

“A Catholic university like St. Thomas is a comfortable place for a Muslim to study,” Alfallaj said. “That is what I saw when I was at the ELS program, and that is what I am seeing today as a graduate student. The people who teach and work here, they are so helpful. They ask, ‘Is there a problem? Would you like to talk?’ I always feel free to talk.”

Before coming to the United States, Alfallaj said he was warned by some that “they hate Muslims in the United States. I was skeptical about that; I wanted to learn for myself from the people here, not from what we see in the media. I have never seen hatred here, or even a mean look. I would have expected that maybe a few times, but it has never happened. This is what I will discuss when I return home; that is what I need to do. … You don’t change the whole world all at once. You change yourself, and then your family and friends.”

Mohamoud Hersi, 30, came to the United States from Somalia in 1990. He was 13, and his family left just before the outbreak of heavy fighting in Somalia’s civil war. He lived for about four years in San Diego before moving to Minnesota.

Hersi received his undergraduate degree from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and graduated from St. Thomas last May with a master’s in software engineering. He and his wife, Ifrah Osman, live in Roseville with their 6-month-old son, Muad, and he works in the Twin Cities as a software engineer. His wife is a pharmacist.

Hersi said he didn’t know much about St. Thomas, but several years ago attended a friend’s graduation ceremony here. At one point during the commencement, part of the Quran was recited. “I was impressed by that,” he said. He decided to learn more about the university and enrolled.

He wishes there could be more programs to explain to St. Thomas students what Islam is all about. “The word ‘Islam’ means peace,” he said, “but often the idea people get from the media is not that. … It is a peaceful religion and has many similarities with Christianity. My hope is that people would make an effort to learn more about it and to do research if they hear something negative.”

Praying five times daily is important to Hersi. He calls it “a must and the second of the five pillars of Islam.” He found St. Thomas faculty members to be understanding and accommodating if he needed to take a break from class to pray.

One thing he misses about life in Somalia is the ease of practicing his faith where “the whole culture observes it.” He said that a quiet room for prayer on the south campus of the university would be appreciated. “If not, the students can figure out something, but it would be nice.”

Jenna Duncan, 20, grew up in Edina and lives in Eden Prairie with her husband, who came from Yemen, and their 4-month-old son. She is a sophomore majoring in political science and international studies. She grew up a Catholic and became a Muslim just before starting her freshman year at  St. Thomas in 2007.

Duncan is blonde and blue-eyed and wears a hijab, the traditional head scarf worn by Muslim women. “I suppose some of my classmates wonder, ‘What’s her story?’” Duncan said. “It’s OK. I have good friends on campus and explain it to them. I don’t feel any prejudice at all here on campus.”

Introduced to Islam by co-workers and her husband, Duncan said she has “never been happier. Islam guides all parts of life … it is a good life.”

After graduation she hopes to attend graduate or law school, and possibly pursue a career in government service.

Busy with her studies, life as a new mom and even some part-time work, she is helping to launch a new organization at St. Thomas called the Council on Middle Eastern Studies. Its goal will be to raise awareness on campus about the Middle East and to open lines of communication among faiths.

Iman Ahmed, co-president of the Muslim Student Association, is a sophomore majoring in international studies and is in the university’s pre-med program. She came to the United States from Somalia when she was 5. Her mother lives and works in Rochester; her father, who was a general in Somalia, died when she was 4.

She learned about St. Thomas from a family friend, applied and received a scholarship. “I’m used to going to school where there aren’t a lot of Muslims,” she said. “And yes, I feel welcome here. I’ve never once felt I didn’t belong.”

Ahmed has had discussions with friends and other students about terrorism, and sometimes will suggest this scenario: What if, back in Somalia, they read or saw on     television story after story about the Ku Klux Klan? Over time, constantly hearing stories about this very small segment of American society could influence how Somalians would view all Americans, and of course they would have the wrong view.

Shamaila Rehman, from Pakistan, learned about St. Thomas from her brothers, both Tommies. “They really liked the environment at St. Thomas and encouraged me to apply.”

Rehman is studying for her master’s in software engineering and works for the university as a designer for Web and Media Services. “I feel more than welcome at St. Thomas. My instructors, other students and especially the American students treat me with respect.”

When she first came to St. Thomas and was working on the south campus, she was having trouble finding a quiet spot to pray. She didn’t want to skip any of her prayers. “This is something I have been doing since my childhood,” she said. “It is soothing and gives me the energy to go on peacefully during the day.

“Then one day I found another Muslim student praying in a classroom. I asked her, ‘Is it OK to pray in the classroom?’ and she said, ‘It sure is, that’s what I do all the time if the classroom is empty.’ I was more than happy that day,” she said.

Ifrah Jimale, 29, will celebrate the 10th anniversary of her arrival in the United States in May, when she also will graduate from St. Thomas with a degree in journalism.

She grew up in a large family in Somalia and rather than attend school, she tended the family’s goat herd. At 19 and illiterate in any language, she was sent overseas to find work, but the airplane she thought was taking her to Great Britain landed instead in Cincinnati, Ohio. Oops. There were problems with her travel documents, and she spent eight months in prison for illegal entry.

Granted amnesty, she eventually found her way to Minneapolis, where she heard there was work. “I was given a job application and a pencil, but I did not know even how to use the pencil,” she said. “I decided I better go to school so I could learn to apply for work.”

She began to learn English in prison, and at age 20, learned to read and write at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis. She became the editor of her high school paper and also enrolled in the St. Thomas-based Urban Journalism Workshop (now called ThreeSixty), a program for high school students of color. She was the third ThreeSixty graduate to win a full-tuition scholarship to St. Thomas.

She has supported herself as a nanny, janitor, waitress and cashier and by unloading trucks at Target, and along the way has managed to send money to her family back in Somalia. At St. Thomas, she has had jobs as a receptionist at residence halls and McCarthy Gym, at the ThreeSixty program, and as a grader and tutor for the Geography Department. She also has worked at the Star Tribune and has written many stories for The Aquin.

Her favorite courses have been in journalism and justice and peace studies, and she is struck by the significant difference between the disciplines: “In one field you are supposed to be an objective observer, and the other, an advocate.”

Her least favorite courses, though, were in theology. To help explain why, she recounts a comment from one of her professors. “We had been learning about world religions, and in talking about Islam, the professor said that Muhammad claimed to have heard the voice of the angel Gabriel. It was that word, ‘claimed.’ I could just feel the tension. This is not just a claim in Islam. It is a belief and one of our most important beliefs, and one of the first things you learn as a child.”

And while she is happy to talk about her faith, she felt that in some theology class sessions, “it seemed like we were not learning, we were debating.”

Other than that, Jimale said she has come to love St. Thomas, and “it’s one place I feel I can call home. I even loved this place before I was a student. When I came once to visit this campus when I was still at Roosevelt High School, I told a friend about it. I said it was so beautiful, and if I could ever go to a college, this is where I would want to go. It was nothing but a dream. I was still thinking of just getting through high school.”

She’s had many favorite professors, including David Nimmer, Lynda McDonnell and Michael O’Donnell in journalism, Robert Werner in geography, and Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer in justice and peace studies. A favorite mentor, she says, is Jane Canney, vice president for student affairs. “I just love her. She has pulled me out of trouble so many times. She just seems to know when something is not right.

“I have felt so welcome and made so many good friends here. Two of my best are very, very Catholic. I went with them to church and they have come with me to Muslim celebrations, like the one we held at St. Thomas at the end of Ramadan. It was great.”

By the Numbers
Muslims represent a small fraction of St. Thomas students. This year, 44 of 6,076 undergraduates are Muslim, as are 53 of 4,371 graduate students. In 2001, there were 14 Muslim undergraduates and 81 graduate students.

The university also welcomes to campus many Muslims who are not enrolled as students at St. Thomas but at the ELS Language Center program on the St. Paul campus that provides intensive English language training programs for international students. Each year the center enrolls about 1,500 students, and about a third are Muslims. A number of ELS graduates have returned to become regular St. Thomas students.

Next in St. Thomas Magazine