By: Asmaa Elkeurti, The Daily Iowan
University of Iowa student Gewiria Fadl entered a Best Buy store in Massachusetts one day in 2002 wearing a traditional Muslim headdress.
“Make sure she doesn’t have a bomb in there,” an employee manning the doorway said when the alarm at the entrance sounded.
Muslims across the country have experienced more incidents similar to Fadl’s since the four planes piloted by terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field 10 years ago.
But the unforgettable attacks have also sparked curiosity in Islam, particularly locally.
In the UI’s Arabic-language program, enrollment has grown from 34 students in 2006 to 117 this fall. And the interest doesn’t stop there. Local Islamic leaders say they’ve seen about 10 converts annually over the last five years, including more than a dozen this year. As of 2007, according to CNN, more than 1.5 million Americans had converted to Islam since 9/11.
“That’s one good thing that came out of [9/11],” said Ousainou Keita, the president of the Iowa City Islamic Center. “People became more inquisitive about Muslims and Islam.”
Sean Schwabenlander, a UI senior studying computer science, began to seek out information about Islam because the attention the religion received – although largely negative – piqued his interest.
“I wanted to learn about this religion that was being demonized by television and newspaper opinion articles,” he said. “And at one point I asked myself, ‘Is this Islam as bad as they say it is?’ ”
Intrigued by the religion, he took the Shahadah, a Muslim oath, and converted from Christianity. He is now an active member in the Muslim community and the secretary of the Muslim American Society UI student organization.
UI Arabic Assistant Professor Denes Gazsi said he believes that the university gives students the opportunity to become more open-minded and aware of the misunderstood religion, and his language classes fill up quickly.
Still, prejudice against Muslims is not gone.
While discrimination against Muslims may be a prominent part of a post-9/11 American society, many Muslims who have been a part of the local community for some time feel religious discrimination in Iowa City is minimal, thanks to a relatively open-minded population.
“Sometimes, I’ll get curious looks, and some people approach and introduce themselves and ask questions,” Fadl said. “Other times, I get weird looks, and not so often, I get disgusted looks.”
Gazsi said he believes many stereotypes are colored with an underlying ignorance and misunderstanding.
“I feel that some people still think that it’s every Muslim, it’s every Arab, who supported what happened on 9/11,” he said. “And I hope that my students belong to this last group, those who want to get a deeper understanding of Arab and Muslim culture. And I think that the university offers students a way to become more open-minded.”