Discover Islam Week, an event hosted by NYU Abu Dhabi over the past seven days, was an entirely student-driven initiative that aimed to demystify and destigmatize one of the largest religions in the world.
The week’s events included a mosque service in English, a hijab tutorial, an open discussion about being a Muslim in Abu Dhabi and a talk from a faculty member on the historical roots of Islam.
Freshman Sebastián Rojas Cabal said that despite having studied in Abu Dhabi for years now, students often have little knowledge of Islam, its rituals, history and cultural significance.
“It’s a must, if you are studying in a Muslim country, to be at least mildly aware of the beliefs of the people around you so you’re able to navigate in a better way,” he said.
Cabal helped brainstorm the initial ideas for the launch of DIW, though he credits others for developing these ideas into actual events and for wading through most of the logistical work.
Freshman Sarah Kowash was actively involved in the planning and implementation of the events. The single most important reason for this week, she said, is education as a means of dispelling harmful misconceptions.
“Although we are in a Muslim country, we are so excluded from [the community] outside Abu Dhabi,” she said. “Bringing across the right perceptions of Islam … was actually the main focus of [this week].”
Senior Mohammed Omer, who was also involved in running DIW, agreed with this sentiment.
“[Islam is] a big part of the national identity of this country, and although we’re from all around the world … it gives a bit of a glimpse into some of the foundations of this country,” he said.
Omer also stressed that educating people was of paramount importance. He said that the portrayal of Islam through many different facets of the media often vilified the Muslim identity.
Rojas agreed that it was often difficult for Westerners to access fair and unbiased information about the real Islam.
“As Westerners, there’s a lot of myths around Islam that we don’t really dare to challenge,” he said. “We really don’t look into those issues, and they’re much more conflicted than the media wants us to believe.”
Kowash said that being in Abu Dhabi was the perfect opportunity to start disseminating information about Islam and to begin giving students a quick response to wield in the face of questions that come from family and friends at home.
“You are in the Middle East; you have all the resources,” she said. “The problem is families and friends who just don’t understand why [students] would come to the Middle East … [Students] just want a comprehensive way to explain that to family and friends back home.”
Omer expressed a contrasting view of the usefulness of being in Abu Dhabi. He said that people are less inclined to ask questions here, partially in fear of causing offense in a Muslim country, but more importantly because of the need for politeness in a country that most of us do not belong to.
“I think people here, rather than being afraid, we’re trying to be good guests,” he said. “Being a guest in this country also comes with the religion. For fear of offending the nation, people will not question the [Muslim] ideals.”
“We need to encourage people to ask questions,” he added.
Tessa Ayson is a staff writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.