The living room in Shakir and Sayaros’ Fort Collins home is adorned on nearly all walls with images of Islam. The room is quite modest, clean and free of distractions. It is empty save for a perfectly arranged sofa, which currently stands unused.
Shakir and Sayaros are sitting quite contentedly on the open living room floor; a long-standing tradition among people of Eastern culture. In the past, people of the poorer, densely populated regions of the world often sat on the floor as they could not afford and did not necessarily need furniture.
Shakir and Sayaros’ situation is not much different than those original floor-sitters.
“It is somewhat cultural tradition to sit on the floor,” says Shakir.
“But we also just don’t have another couch to fit all of us,” says Sayaros smiling.
To understand the lives of Shakir Muhammad and Sayaros Mohamed, who retains her maiden name so her identity may stay true to her family and true to God, requires no more difficulty than understanding the lives of any young married couple in America.
However, this understanding does not come easily, as their lives are very much shrouded by stereotypes surrounding their Islamic heritage and beliefs.
Despite its many followers, the Islamic religion and the Muslim way of life is often looked upon as a foreign concept in the Western World. Unpleasant images of a few radical terrorist groups are, many times, the only mainstream exposure Muslim people receive.
This exposure has resulted in the burden of stereotypes that now overshadow the Islamic religion.
These stereotypes link the Muslim community to false notions of holding anti-Western society ideals, supporting terrorism and having standard practices of degrading and abusing women under the tyrannical rule of a dominant male.
The title “Muslim Fundamentalist” has come to be incorrectly synonymous to the words “radical” and “extremist.”
“Fundamentalism is not a bad thing, it means to follow a religion’s basic practices,” says Shakir, who is active in the Fort Collins Islamic Center’s Da’wa, or outreach, program.
Shakir and his wife Sayaros embody what it is to be a Muslim couple in America and, for that matter, a married couple in America.
However, their religious association places them in the path of Muslim stereotypes, especially those about Muslim gender relations and roles.
Shakir works at a local engineering firm while his wife attends CSU. However, his responsibility does not stop there. He also helps around the house when his wife is too busy to realistically take care of all of the housekeeping duties.
“Shakir understands that I am serious about my education and he will help around the house if I am busy studying,” says Sayaros, a 4.0 GPA senior in the business department. “That’s why Muslims actually love America. Here we don’t have to worry about restrictions in culture, we can focus on the teachings of Islam how they were intended to be followed.”
The Islamic religion is the fastest growing religion in the world according to the Christian Science Monitor. It is comprised of nearly 2 billion people. Among these people there is a vast array of cultures and traditions.
Around the world Islamic people, or Muslims, of many races and nationalities are subject to differences in culture, but their beliefs are all alike.
Nevertheless, the cultural differences are sometimes assumed to be characteristic of all Muslims. This has resulted in the multiple stereotypes held against the Muslim people as a whole.
“The most important thing people ought to understand is a culture, any culture, from its own individuals’ perspectives,” says Ali Al-Romaih, a CSU graduate student from Saudi Arabia. “Some people need a scapegoat. We need to learn about other cultures and societies; generalizations about all Muslims will only lead to more misunderstanding.”
Ali is an international student sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government. After earning his doctorate, he will return to work in Saudi Arabia at Riyadh’s Alimam University. He wishes to return to his students as an advocate for the importance of cultural understanding.
“I must teach the American culture with honesty,” says Ali who was deeply affected by the tolerance and compassion of Fort Collins residents following the World Trade Center tragedy.
Ali lives by the same principles as Shakir and Sayaros, yet they come from very different cultures. International misinterpretations of these cultures have caused dangerous stereotypes and conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims.