The Harm of Muslim Stereotypes: An Interview with BC’s Fatmah Berikaa

by Vincent Ferruci

From classmates to colleagues to neighbors, we interact with hundreds of people daily. These interactions form our opinions about who they are, what they believe in, and how we treat them. But, what happens when we do not interact with an entire religious group to which over 1.6 billion people belong? With under 2% of the American population practicing Islam, the majority of citizens in America do not interact with Muslims on a daily basis (Seib 470). For many students at Boston College, a Jesuit Catholic university, the Muslim faith is unfamiliar. For many Americans, the Muslim faith is unfamiliar. Prejudices can form because of this unfamiliarity, and then solidify because of certain media portrayals. Is this hopeless? Fatmah Berikaa and the Boston College Muslim Student Association (MSA) think there may be a solution: to overcome our prejudices against unfamiliar groups, a strong Uma, or community, must be established, which occurs when we individually discover who we are, what we stand for, and where we need to grow.

The Muslim Student Association’s mission is two-part: “to unite the Muslim community at Boston College through a variety of religious and social events” and “be committed to enhancing the spirit of religious co-existence, understanding, and dialogue at Boston College.” But these are just words on paper. So, how does the MSA build a community for Muslim’s while also being committed to enhancing religious co-existence? Fatmah Berikaa, a junior studying psychology and president of the MSA, has an answer to that question.

There are few students more qualified to speak on enhancing co-existence than Fatmah whose dad is an Egyptian immigrant and whose mom converted from Catholicism to Islam in her thirties. Fatmah’s entire maternal side of the family practices Catholicism, so she brings a unique perspective to the MSA. She said that to build co-existence and understanding on campus, the MSA opens up most of its meetings to members of all faiths. These meetings are held at a MSA group leader’s apartment, which provides a “homey” feel so that those who attend will grow closer together and form tight-knit relationships (Personal Interview)

One meeting open to members of all faiths is the weekly Chai Chat, held every Thursday evening. After attending a Chai Chat myself, I truly believe that the group is a “second home” for Muslim students across campus that come from all over the country, and in some cases, the world. Members look out for one another by checking in to see how everyone’s day is going and by serving as a backbone for students to lean on when struggles arise. Students in the MSA face the traditional struggles of being a college student, but they face additional struggles associated with being a religious minority at a Catholic university. One such difficulty is finding a place to pray on campus five times a day. A fundamental practice of the Muslim faith is prayer, which is performed five times throughout the day. However, many Muslim students discover that finding a place to pray can be stressful. In response, members of the MSA open up their dorm rooms as a safe space or pray with other students in order to relieve this stress. In addition to this religious support, members of the MSA are like a family in providing emotional support to one another. On the night that I attended the Chai Chat, the meeting ended early in order for the group to support a fellow member who was performing in a comedy show on campus. The care that the MSA shows to all members builds an Uma, or community.

One major reason the MSA has such a strong Uma is Fatmah’s passion for the idea. When asked about her favorite part of the faith, the one that keeps it burning inside her, Fatmah responded, “Uma.” Any further discussion with her will show this is not an empty response. After speaking with her multiple times, I believe, even in a group that is so focused on community and care for one another, that no one is more passionate about looking out for members of the MSA than Fatmah. During my time at the Chai Chat, Fatmah assumed the role of a loving mother looking out for her children. She offered tea, a warm smile, and a listening ear to everyone that walked in the door. Fatmah said that she loves to check in on someone who looks upset, and not just members of the MSA. Fatmah looks out for everyone she knows and remembers the minute details in that person’s life that may be causing stress. The day after I attended the Chai Chat, for example, Fatmah asked me if I finished the homework I was concerned about and wished me a safe trip as I headed off to Raleigh. Fatmah’s kindness displays that Uma is not reserved solely for those who share the same religion, are in the same student organizations, or have the same characteristics. To build true Uma, we must start by showing kindness and care to everyone around us. If we do so, we will become more familiar with those we view as different and, in the process, break down preconceptions we may hold against them. .

In order to build a community with others, Fatmah says that we must accomplish one fundamental task. The reason she believes she has built such an incredible Uma at Boston College is because she understands who she is. In her own eloquent words: “I can’t know you unless I know myself.” Therefore, to build an Uma, we must be comfortable with who we are, which can be arrived at in two steps. The first step in knowing who we are is rooted in self-criticism. An important aspect of the Muslim faith is self-analysis in which a person discovers who he or she is by finding the passions, values, and goals that he or she holds. The second step in knowing who we are is looking outward. This statement may sound like a contradiction, but as Fatmah explains, “In order to know myself…I have to be comfortable with others.” To discover what we believe in and what makes us happy, we must be comfortable enough with others to bear witness to our passions in all circumstances.

Fatmah serves as the example in staying true to oneself in all situations. Part of her identity includes wearing the hijab, or scarf, that is traditional amongst Muslim women. However, when Fatmah first came to Boston College, she felt like “The Muslim Student” because she was one of two people to wear the scarf. Many students would have felt uncomfortable and stopped wearing it, but Fatmah knew who she was. She continued to wear the scarf even when people came up to her and started asking her questions about her faith. Many asked insensitive questions, but Fatmah was able to see that even the insensitive questions were asked, not out of spite, but genuine curiosity. To grow to a state of total comfort in our identity, Fatmah recommends that we ask ourselves questions like, “What do I lack? What are my insecurities? How can I grow?” If we have a true sense of who we are, we will be able to answer these questions truthfully. Then, we are faced with the task of overcoming what we lack.

To overcome what we lack, it is important that we connect with people who we are unfamiliar with. Once again, Fatmah provides a piece of advice by telling us how to connect with others. She states that, “You connect with people based on parts of yourself that you see in them.” To see ourselves in other people, we must know who we are, which comes from critical self-analysis. Connecting with others builds an Uma, which tears down the wall of unfamiliarity and allows preconceptions to break down as well. Many people hold preconceptions against Muslims because they are unable to connect with them. This lack of connection creates stereotypes, which are the epitome of ignorance. Instead of asking what it is like to pray five times a day, many people misuse the image of a Muslim bowed down in prayer. Instead of discovering what holidays Muslims celebrate, many only remark, sometimes scornfully, that Muslims do not celebrate Christmas. Lastly, and most egregiously, instead of understanding the faith teachings of Islam, many assume that all Muslims are radicals. If people simply asked more questions, were more willing to learn, then they would discover that the Muslim faith has many connections to Christianity and other religions. In my talk with Fatmah, I discovered that praying five times a day is not as difficult as many people make it out to be, that the Muslim holiday of Eid is very similar to Christmas, and that the teachings of community and self-awareness that the faith preaches are by no means radical thoughts. We must only look for the similarities in others that connect us in order to make great steps toward overcoming ignorance.

Speaking with Fatmah helped me overcome my ignorance and tear down the perceived wall between who I am as a practicing Catholic and the students who practice Islam on campus. I went to meet Fatmah expecting to discover the fundamental differences between the Catholic and Muslim faith. Instead, I discovered that the two religions share the same fundamental values of community, self awareness, and charity. However, during my meeting with Fatmah and in attending the weekly Chai Chat, I discovered something more important. I found an Uma in the MSA full of students who are enduring many of the same struggles that I face on a daily basis. They are looking to meet new friends. They are striving for success in all their classes. They are looking for community. Today, thanks to Fatmah Berikaa’s self-awareness, I am on the quest to know who I am in order that I may build an Uma with everyone around me. I invite everyone to join me.

Works Cited

Berikaa, Fatmah. “The Muslim Faith.” Personal interview. 26 Oct. 2016.

Seib, Philip. “American Newspaper Coverage of Islam in the Arab World.” The Oxford     Handbook of Religion and the American News Media. Ed. Diane H. Winston. New York:          Oxford UP, 2012. 469-79. Print.