Editor's Note: This article has been edited to correct Muhammad Coovadia’s standing as a junior instead of a senior.
2 percent of the University of Richmond student body openly identify as Muslim, making senior Sidra Siddiqui and junior Muhammad Coovadia part of one of the smallest minorities on campus.
In light of current events, such as the Oct. 31 New York City terrorist attack claimed by the Islamic State that left eight dead, Siddiqui and Coovadia said they witnessed stereotyping of their faith every day.
“People often draw a direct line between Muslims and terrorists,” Siddiqui said.
“I have met people in my life who don’t believe that Islam is pure,” he said. “I think that it is problematic.”
Siddiqui and Coovadia both said they felt as though students on campus can create assumptions and stereotypes based on their appearances and religious identity.
Waleed Ilyas, the Muslim life program coordinator, agreed with the existence of such stereotypes.
“I feel like sometimes it is understandable for people to have those stereotypes.” Ilyas said. “But it is our job to make sure that we are constantly being our best selves.”
Neither Siddiqui nor Coovadia recall having an openly negative experience regarding their identity during their time at Richmond. But both still said they believed that with current turmoil caused by the Islamic State terrorist group, there seems to be a skewed perception against all Americans who identify as Muslim.
Siddiqui said she often feels the pressure to defend her religion in discussions around campus, as she attempts to defy people’s assumptions.
“My mind always goes to the defensive side for my religion and for my identity," she said.
Ilyas said he understood how it is difficult for students to constantly defend their core values and morals. In light of current events, Ilyas said, combating the stereotypes and defending the Muslim identity is getting harder, regardless of the falsehoods behind the stereotypes.
“It is a difficult spot for Muslims to be in,” Ilyas said. “I understand that it is a constant challenge.”
Yet, Siddiqui said the criticism she and other Muslims face have a strengthening effect on her faith.
“It makes me more deeply rooted in my faith,” she said, “because whenever someone says something negative about my beliefs, it forces me to look back through the written text to find answers."
Coovadia agreed with Siddiqui, and encouraged non-Muslim people to be the level-headed majority rather than the radical-thinking minority.
“I think that with any religion it is difficult to judge people from that certain demographic,” Coovadia said. “You can’t just take one person and assume that is how they all are.”
66 percent of UR's student body identify as either Roman Catholic or any variation of Protestant, according to numbers generated by Common Application data.
Rose Sisco, senior, said she had been searching for a religion that she related to for about 10 years. Then she found Islam.
“My family doesn’t really practice any religion,” she said. “I did not connect with any religion until I converted to Islam about four months ago.”
Sisco said she is confident that her religion is a true part of who she is now. Despite her appearance, which differs from other practitioners, her Islamic faith is rooted in her character and identity.
For Coovadia, religion has also played a significant role in his self-discovery and the formation of his values.
“My religion is a map that shows how I should live my life but also what my priorities should be in life,” Coovadia said. “I think that one of those priorities is treating people well and being there for people when needed.”
Despite their efforts to defend their faith, Coovadia and Siddiqui agreed that they cannot change people’s minds about their faith.
“At the end of the day, people will not judge you on your faith but rather how you treated them,” Coovadia said.
Ilyas added that the best way to start to dissipate these stereotypes is for each person to seek out a Muslim person and get to know him or her. Ilyas also said he believes that it is vital for people to maintain an open mind.
“Get out and get to know a Muslim,” Ilyas said. “Get out of your bubble and try not to carry around those prejudgment things that you hold in your mind.”
Coovadia, similar to Ilyas, said they believe that the best way to conquer a skewed perception is to initiate a dialogue and become more informed about what Islam truly is.
“We don't play into the hands of the people who wish to create an us-versus-them dialogue,” Coovadia said. “A dialogue is important whether they have the same or contrasting beliefs.”
Siddiqui shared this sentiment.
“People have a lack of knowledge on the subject,” Siddiqui added. “The more detail people learn about the values that correlate with my religion, the less they will be able to create these prejudgments, regardless of current events.”
The Muslim Students Association meets every Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the Wilton Center. The Wilton Center is also available as a safe place for all students, regardless of religious association.
Contact features contributor Caroline Queally at caroline.queally@richmond.