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Iftar Unites Muslims, Community

By Rima Arnaout

NEWS AND FEATURES DIRECTOR

Faculty, staff, and administrators gathered at Ashdown House Wednesday for a Ramadan dinner, or iftar. The event was the final installment in a series intended to bridge the gap between MIT’s Muslim students and the greater MIT community.

The iftar series, called Ramadan@MIT, developed out of the mutual desire of MIT administrators and MIT’s Muslim community to reach out to each other following the events of September 11 and ensuing domestic tension.

“Hopefully [the dialogue] will make MIT become a more special place,” said Ramadan@MIT committee head Mohammed Saeed G.

About 170 people attended Wednesday’s dinner, comprising about 100 faculty and staff and about 70 Muslim students. Ramadan@MIT committee head Mohammed Saeed gave a speech entitled “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: an Islamic Perspective.”

Among the attendees were professor emeritus and former MIT president Paul E. Gray ’54, Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75, members of Residence Life and Student Life Programs, MIT chaplains, and members of MIT Counseling and Support Services.

During the question and answer session, President Charles M. Vest said that he is often asked how the Muslims at MIT are feeling following the events of Sept. 11. “What is it that you would like me to say?” he asked the panel.

“Well first of all, Guttentag,” said Sarah N. Saleh G., jokingly responding to Vest’s story of his family’s being German-speakers during World War 1. “I’m stressed out because I have two projects due on Tuesday. But I’m also happy to be in such a diverse community.”

Panelist Tanya Reza ’04, a New York native, recounted a phone call in which her parents advised her to remove her head scarf so as not to make herself a target.

“It really shouldn’t have to come to that ... when you have to sacrifice a strong part of your belief for your safety,” she said. Raising awareness and reaching out to each other, she said, helps combat that fear.

“The real victims were the ones who lost their lives,” Mohammed Jalal Khan G said. “I didn’t want to allow myself [to be considered as a victim when] I was one of the luckiest ones, with a very minor problem.”

Khan also expressed concern about the apparent threats to due process rights that the announcement of mass detentions and interviews of Muslims in America, as well as President Bush’s announcement of military tribunals.

“They are not a concern for you; they are a concern for all of us,” Vest said.

The previous dinners in the Ramadan@MIT series were the MIT chaplaincy iftar night and bring a friend to iftar night.

Talk addresses Islamic perspective

In his keynote speech, Saeed offered an Islamic perspective on the American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Quoting from the Koran, the Prophet Mohammed’s sayings, and the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, Saeed said that Islam teaches that life is precious.

Saeed went on to say that according to Islam individuals have both freedom and responsibility. “We all have a choice to do right and wrong, and by giving us that choice, Allah holds us accountable,” he said.

The speech was followed by a question and answer session moderated by Saeed and five other members of the MIT Muslim community. Members of the faculty and administration asked questions, such as how Islam reconciled the story of creation with current scientific evidence and how Judeo-Christian prophets fit in to Islam, in open microphone format.

CCRR develops awareness video

During the iftar, members from the Campus Committee for Race Relations recorded a video about what it is like to be a Muslim at MIT.

This effort was separate from the Ramadan@MIT series, but included input from the MSA. “Since September 11, the students have expressed some interest in making sure that the community understands what it’s like to be Muslim,” said housemaster and Associate Dean of Counselling and Support Services Ayida Mthembu, who directed the project at Wednesday’s dinner.

In the same vein as MIT’s “Intuitively Obvious” video series, this video “is intended to be used internally at MIT for educational purposes ... for people to get whatever the truth is from their perspective out there,” Mthembu said. The video may be used to spark discussion at living group events or among faculty, Mthembu said.

CCRR did give a grant specifically in support of the Ramadan@MIT series. The students also worked closely with Linda Noel, program coordinator for student activities. “I was excited when some of the students who were planning [the event] came to my office ... the whole series is a great opportunity for all members of the MIT community to come together and learn from each other,” she said after attending the event.

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar when Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. It is also a month of reflection and prayer. Muslims believe that their holy book, th Koran, was revealed during the month of Ramadan. The month travels with the lunar calendar and will start next year at the beginning of November.