Spring break, Islamic style: Imams counter stereotypes at U.S. universities

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Muslim chaplains at private universities in the U.S. are attempting to spread understanding of mainstream Islam to counter stereotypes about the religion, a Muslim chaplain told Al Arabiya English this week.

Abdullah T. Antepli, a Muslim chaplain at Duke University, North Carolina, spoke to Al Arabiya-English about the value an Islamic chaplaincy adds to American universities.

“As a chaplain you become a ‘resource person’…you become Islam’s voice and the entire campus will turn to you on Islamic affairs,” Imam Abdullah said.

Along with Christian and Jewish chaplains, Muslims imams are now given a space to introduce Islam to students who have misconceptions about the religion which is commonly affiliated with terrorism and violence by the media states Abdullah.

“The post 9/11 challenges brought Islam and Muslims to the center of attention in the U.S.,” he said.

It is these challenges that predicate the need for introducing, and sustaining, Muslim chaplaincies on American campuses.

“The need for a moderate respectful voice for Islam… and the need to include Muslims into the society’s fabric,” were all reasons behind introducing Islamic chaplaincy,” said the imam.

Chaplains are religious leaders who function outside the traditional house of worship and take part in social institutions to serve people.

Despite it being a predominantly western phenomenon, historically born of the protestant religion, it was of interest to Muslims.

Almost all army and military bases, prison cells, universities and hospitals have chaplains from various protestant and Christian denominations, Imam Abdullah said. Muslim chaplains are now demanding a presence in these locations, he added.

Imam Abdullah completed his basic training and education in his native Turkey. He told Al Arabiya English he was the second Muslim chaplain in the United States.

He came to the U.S. in 1998 as a student and discovered the profession of chaplaincy.

“I saw the real need, the vacuum of religious leadership for Muslims in the U.S. in an institutional setting,” he said.

Imam Abdullah served as the first Muslim chaplain at Wesleyan University from 2003 to 2005. He then moved to Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, where he was the associate director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program & Interfaith Relations, as well as an adjunct faculty member.

Imam Abdullah explained that there is a difference between imams and chaplains; the latter are additionally trained in counseling.

“Chaplains complement the imam. They act as the “religious leadership for members on their campus. This is more difficult than being an imam in any mosque,” Abdullah said.

An imam mostly deals with a less diverse population, he said. “People who go to mosques, go for worship and thus, they are comfortable in their faith.”

However, on university campuses, a chaplain meets all sorts of people, who range from religious to non-religious individuals.

“Half of the people who demand my counseling services are non-Muslim students, among them are Jews and atheists,” Imam Abdullah said.

He added that hundreds of students attend his sessions on a yearly basis, consisting of Muslims and non-Muslims.

However, Imam Abdullah said that extreme views against Islam still exist despite the liberalism prevalent in most American universities.

“They unfortunately exist and are getting vocal,” Abdullah said, explaining that such negative attitudes are expounded by geographical factors.

“Islam is an unknown concept to them, they are struggling to understand it. They don’t hate Islam…they just don’t know it” considering their distance from people who practice the religion.

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