UNews sat down with Affan Ahmad, the current secretary of the Muslim Student Organization at UMKC, to talk about his experience as a Muslim at our school. Instead of focusing on politics, which came up nonetheless, Affan spoke about his life beyond the sphere of how his religion relates to current events.
Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from, where did you grow up?
A: My family is originally from India, so my parents grew up in India. For two years, my dad had an assignment for Xerox in Saudi Arabia, [I] happened to be born there. After I was born…my dad got a transfer to the United States and we lived with my parent’s uncle… for I think nine months. When my mom finally moved over we moved to Olathe. Basically, my entire life has been here in Kansas.
Q: What were your favorite things in school, as a kid?
A: I got put in the gifted program. I enjoyed that because my sister didn’t get any of those things… I wouldn’t say I was religious at all, upbringing-wise. That’s a phenomenon you find a lot with first generation families where the parents won’t try to be overly religious to help assimilate better. Then their kids will be like, I need to find my own identity and they’ll become more religious. I’ve noticed that with myself and a ton of people around me.
Q: Put me in the mind of high school Affan.
A: When we finally moved to Overland Park there’s a mosque that my dad was very involved with…it’s called ICJC…we moved to be a little closer to that. I think that’s when I got more religious because at that time I started taking Koran classes…I used to go every day for an hour or two and memorize…I would try to go at 6 a.m. for the very early prayer and then go get ready for school. I used to really enjoy the temperature and the feeling of getting up. It slowly just grew from the proximity.
Q: What is Islam to you?
A: I think my entire life, even when I wasn’t religious, you know that game they play as an ice breaker, what is your identity? What is the first thing you would use to describe yourself? I’m American, I’m a male, or whatever your identity has been, for me it’s always been I’m a Muslim. It’s been something I’ve always been proud of. Islam to me is the only way I know how to live my life. The definition of Islam is, it’s a way of life. We don’t consider it a religion. It’s a guide for how we live our daily lives.
Q: What age did you really start wanting to invest in Islam, was that ninth grade?
A: I think it was about ninth grade when I had an aptitude for it. Honestly, I just liked being the best at it…that’s when I started to memorize the Koran. I really, really enjoyed reading it…when I started college it kind of fell off. So, in the dorms where I was here first, the majority of my classmates were Indian. All my roommates ended up being Hindus and they’re still my best friends today. I made friends with the Muslim kids, but we weren’t in proximity with how the dorms played out. So my closest friends ended up not being Muslim. And it kind of — I wouldn’t say I got less religious — it just wasn’t as big of a part of my life.
About a year ago I decided that I was disappointed in myself that I hadn’t kept up with it in any way and so I started listening to lectures and trying to learn more about the history and the non-Koran parts. Well, the history of the Koran — but not just memorizing — more learning about my religion…
The real problem is that all the scholars of Islam are raised in the middle east because that’s where the schools are, so their English sucks…if you want someone truly knowledgeable, half the battle is getting them to even communicate with you. They don’t have the same social standards as we have and they don’t understand the same nuances. And they can be politically incorrect and it’s just detrimental. A lot of it began with me wanting to be someone, my knowledge of English…I wanted to eventually be at a place where I feel comfortable representing my religion at some level.
Q: What’s the major difference between the type of Islam you see in America and the type of Islam that’s practiced in the Middle East? Or is there a difference?
A: Two years ago, I went to Saudi Arabia for the second time in my life — after being born there — for our mini pilgrimage and to visit my aunt…that was my first exposure to a Middle Eastern country and to me, the differences are like, it was mind blowing. People would leave their jewelry shops open, wide open, and everyone would go pray. There was just that level of trust in the community that was just mind blowing coming from here. I don’t leave my phone sitting here for five minutes if I went to the bathroom…to me, that was just beautiful. From a strict practicing, like following the prayers kind of thing, they do a phenomenal job. That’s one of the things we lack here…on the other side, they’ve grown up with the religion, it means nothing to them, it’s not a part of their identity.
For me, Islam differentiates me from my peers. I would always ask my parents, why don’t we do this, and they could say, “you’re a Muslim”…I think they lack a lot of the sincerity, or the struggle that we have here to really prove or become our own Muslims…here you pray because you truly want to…At least in my experience, people here tend to be more knowledgeable. We go out and we want to learn our religion more.
Q: What has it been like, coming into a university that’s fairly liberal, maybe not by east coast standards, but…
A: I want to put on record that UMKC has been phenomenal for Muslims. For the longest time, one of the rooms in the library was kind of unused, so Muslims used to go pray there…I believe three years ago someone saw that and they complained and said I don’t like Muslims praying out here. So, the school took away the room and we were upset. There was a resolution passed in the student government and they actually built and refurbished and added a sink and stuff to a different room in the library and made it…a meditation room…UMKC’s been great about that. At the med school, I don’t know if anyone even asked…they added a prayer room there too…as far as I know, no one even asked, it was just a proactive move by UMKC.
We get emails frequently from the staff, like, “We’re here to support you, we’re willing, let us know how we can help.” So they’re putting a good effort on. We really do appreciate that…I personally have never encountered like, actual racism…for example my fiancée, she’s a hijabi, so she says that sometimes people will cut her off on the road and give her the finger just because it’s obvious that she’s Muslim. I think I get a lot of freedom just because I’m a male. I’m taller than average and you can’t just decide I’m Muslim by looking at me…I think girls get a lot more…for many hijabis, their parents are actively trying to get them to stop because they’re worried about them. So, I think that there’s that fear and we’re lucky that we live here.