It took all of thirty seconds with Alisar Kerbatieh, psychology student and secretary of the RMIT Islamic Society (RMITIS), for me to feel ridiculous that I had ever felt nervous about this interview. Initially feeling underprepared with my (very) beginner knowledge of Islam and only two years of my journalism degree fully completed, she was quick to welcome me into a world I had only ever been an outsider to.
Not being religious myself, my only prior exposure to Islam before this interview was through social media and if my time as a journalism student has taught me anything, it was this – completely ignore the misinformed nature and wild misconceptions of around the religion and its people on social media at all means possible.
So where did that leave me? If I’m honest, completely and utterly clueless with where to truly begin. Nevertheless I was beyond motivated to learn more about something that continues to be misconstrued by people everyday.
Joined by aeronautical engineering student, Dilara Soylu, Kerbatieh explained to me that ‘Islam’ was an Arabic term meaning to submit one’s will to the will of God and that being a Muslim meant submitting your will to the religion’s one and only true god, ‘Allah’ and to also believe in the Prophet Muhammad as the last and final prophet of God. They further explained the deeper facets of Islam to me, which included its five pillars – the basic obligatory acts of the religion. One of these is ‘salah‘, the obligatory Muslim prayers performed five times each day.
With increased confidence as a result of this newly found knowledge and understanding about Islam, I felt ready to ask the overwhelming amount of questions I had prepared. Despite all members of RMITIS being students at the same university, the people in front of me were living their lives within a campus community completely different to mine.
Created as a support network for all Muslim students on the RMIT campus, RMITIS is always busy packing the semester calendar full with barbecues, lectures, workshops and social events. With an aim of further fostering a greater understanding of Islam to all students, RMITIS has grown from being simply another club to so much more.
“The Islamic Society quickly became my home away from home as I got more comfortable in Australia,” said Junaid Aleem, a mechanical engineering student who migrated from India to pursue his studies.
“The fact that here at RMIT we have been given the privilege to comfortably practise our own faith is fantastic.”
However, it was when I asked about any possible negative experiences that I learned about how the journey towards acceptance for Muslim students had not always been easy. In late 2007, the dedicated prayer rooms at RMIT for male and female Muslim students were closed after fourteen years due to construction on campus.
Enraged and outcast, students’ reactions were intense and would fuel the start of one of this decade’s longest student campaigns. Muslim students at RMIT found themselves fighting for their rights to fulfill their religious obligations on campus.
RMITIS launched their campaign ‘Right the Wrong and return the Muslim prayer rooms’ to outwardly protest against the decisions of the university. Immediate protest also took the form of students praying in corridors, classrooms and in the street during all weather conditions. An eventual and rare victory occurred in 2009 with prayer rooms being reinstated after almost 18 months of protest.
Today, RMIT positively supports religious practises of both its staff and students, providing multi-faith places of worship across all of its three campuses and chaplains representing Buddhist, Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths of various branches.
“They are really respectful and it’s really positive that we are now able to practise our faith in a supportive and welcoming environment,” said Kerbatieh.
Containing separate male and female prayer rooms along with dedicated ablution stations, these areas on campus allow Muslim students to be comfortable practising their faith as well as creating a place to meet other students.
“Even as a student, there will always be times where you feel lonely or that you don’t fit in quite as well as everyone else so when you do find someone else like you, you can share that immediate connection like hey, we’re experience the same thing,” said Soylu.
“You don’t have to explain or justify yourself, they just straight away get you and it’s really nice.”
The importance of RMITIS extends beyond the Muslim student community can also reach students just like me. Understanding the faiths of fellow students, and being able to support them in whatever ways we can, allows us to create a more supportive and welcoming environment for those who may feel like they are in the minority.
RMITIS wants all students of all backgrounds to feel welcome in coming forward to ask questions and learn more about Islam, just like I did.
“I always hope people ask questions rather than make assumptions, like when things happen on TV or in the media, it’s okay to ask about it. Asking a question is better than having that seed of doubt in your mind,” said Soylu.
“We also encourage doing your own research as the media is so easily influenced these days, our culture is so much more than what’s on the news.”