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Q & A with a Latina Muslim

Q & A
By Jay Cridlin
St. Petersburg Times
September 6, 2002

Rose Munoz is president of the Muslim Students Association at the University of South Florida. As the first anniversary of 9/11 approaches, she discusses her conversion to Islam, how USF students reacted to her after the attacks and why her parents worry about her.

Jumada Al-Thani 23, 1422.

That, on the Islamic calendar, is the date roughly corresponding to Sept. 11, 2001.

Rose Munoz's roommates at the University of South Florida begged her that day not to wear her traditional hijab scarf around her head. Her parents cried, thinking she might be attacked for wearing it in public. Her Muslim friends tried to find her an escort home from class.

At the time, Munoz was vice president of USF's Muslim Students Association.

Beneath the scarf, Munoz is of Colombian ancestry, born 21 years ago in Manhattan. She converted to Islam two years and eight days before two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center.

"When they see a person with the head scarf on, they automatically assume that you're a raised Muslim born overseas," Munoz says. "They don't realize that we come from all over the world, and that a lot of us are born here in America."

Munoz is now MSA's president, and she is preparing for the one-year anniversary of the attacks. She recently sat down with St. Petersburg Times staff writer Jay Cridlin to discuss the difficulty of being a Muslim woman in a post-Sept. 11 world. Here are excerpts:

* * * Tell me why you are Muslim.

I actually converted about three years ago, my freshman year here at USF. I converted on Sept. 3 of '99. I guess I was searching for a religion. I didn't really feel comfortable with any of the religions that I had been to. I was baptized in the Catholic Church. I was also baptized in the Baptist Church. And I learned about Islam, and it was beautiful. My first time to the mosque, I converted.

* * * What did your parents think about your conversion to Islam?

Their first question was, "Who's Jesus to you now?' And I told them, "He's still a great man, a prophet, just not the son of God.' The only thing they don't like is me covering my head with this thing.

* * * What objection do they have with you wearing the traditional scarf?

They're worried for my safety. They think that I'm going to be attacked, or discriminated against, or just that I'm cutting back my opportunities or denying myself certain liberties by wearing it. But I try to explain to them that for me, I feel that I'm giving myself more opportunities, and giving myself the opportunity to be identified as a Muslim, and I like that. They are fine with the religion, and they actually really like what's happened to me because of it, because I've matured, and they see positive changes in my life. And my father even told me that. He's happy with it, and he feels comfortable with it -- all except for this.

* * * How did you learn that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center?

I was on my way to class. I was getting dressed, and we were watching the TV, and we saw the planes crash into the Trade Center. It was really shocking. I immediately thought, "Oh, they're going to think it was a terrorist group.' And the first things that pop into people's minds are Muslims, when they think of terrorists.

They were like, "Don't go, don't go to class.' I went anyway, because my teacher would have given me an F for the day, so I had to go. And I knew we were probably going to have repercussions, that people were automatically going to assume it was us.

People were running around frantically to go home, and all the brothers, the male Muslims, were trying to make sure that all the girls had an escort -- they didn't want us to walk alone, because they knew people were going to probably just be rude to us, or have some sort of backlash. There were some girls that had people yelling at them in front of the library, just saying insults, and that was just the first day. I walked home with a friend of mine, actually, to the dorms, and just stayed inside for the rest of the day. But then the next day, I was out.

* * * When you went back to your room, what sort of thoughts went through your head?

I was under a lot of stress because I was the vice president of MSA then. I was on the phone all day, calling my parents. I was on the phone with the president of the school, the student government president -- everybody was calling just to make sure that the Muslims on campus were safe.

It was just nerve-racking to think that now we're going to have to be on guard for something that we didn't even do, that we didn't have any connection with. It's sort of sad to think that now, people are so narrow-minded or ignorant at times that they automatically (assume) guilt by association, like, "You're a Muslim; therefore, you have to be associated with this also.'

* * * What did your parents say, the first time you talked to them that day?

I'd try to tell them that it was safe on campus. I had people coming up to me and giving me hugs -- like, big Army guys, ROTC men, coming up and offering me escorts. People were really understanding. I didn't have that much negative things. It was more so off campus, that I had some dirty looks and some dirty comments. But on campus, everybody was really understanding.

* * * Is USF a friendly environment for Muslims?

Yeah. Very friendly. USF has been very supportive, as much as they can be. And people in general have been rather supportive. They understand more than what I would think they would, with the occasional, as I said, yelling.

For me, the main tension has come from my parents. Like, they're fearful. And a lot of converts have felt the stress that I feel. We love our family so much, and now we're torn.

* * * How do you cope with having your family and your beliefs almost at odds?

Prayer and friends. There's many times when I just sit down and cry, because I know that my mom's being really stressed out. I know that my sister now looks at me different. I know that my father thinks I'm going to be discriminated against beyond belief. Since Sept. 11, I would think that that's been the hardest thing for me, and that's been what's suffered the most -- my family ties, my peace of mind with my family.

* * * Did you still have family or friends in New York?

Yeah. We actually lost a friend in the crash. He was a firefighter. A couple of days afterward, his mother calls my mom and told us. So my mom was even more shaken up about that.

* * * What did Muslim students do to cope with the tragedy of that day?

I think that day, we all just ran home, afraid that something was going to happen to us, because people would just be angry and have hate crimes. But I myself was out the next day with two other guys, putting up fliers all over campus, putting up statements from MSA and from the Muslims on campus saying that we don't agree with these actions, that we're not responsible for them, nor do we have any association with the group that did it. So even though everybody was like, "Stay home, you're going to be attacked,' I had to go out. My main concern was that nothing would happen to the people, the next day, that came to school.

* * * Did you encounter any threats or disparaging comments?

I've had people stop me -- even still, they'll stop me -- and ask me questions, like, "How do you feel about the whole Sept. 11 thing? What do you think about this?' I try to explain to them that the day that the planes were hijacked, our religion was hijacked as well. It made us look like criminals, it made us look like murderers. Islam is totally against that.

* * * Are there still lingering effects from Sept. 11 that the Muslim community here on campus is suffering?

I guess we still deal with it every day, because every day, you go out and somebody will give you a dirty look. Somebody will ask you a question. Now, with the anniversary coming up, we're having to plan events. Student government is putting on a Sept. 11 memorial, and I've been asked to speak at that. It's rehashing it every day, almost. I know one friend just had his office broken into, and it very well could easily be connected, because they know he's a Muslim.

* * * Did Sept. 11 make you think twice about becoming president of MSA?

No, not at all. I guess that's a question that I have a lot, like, "Did I question my faith, or did I think of taking this off, or did I wonder, "Oh, my God, why the hell did I convert to this?" ' But, no, it just made me a stronger Muslim, I think. Because of Sept. 11, a lot of people have come out of their shell, and have become stronger in their faith, and feel that now we have to really show what Islam is all about.

* * * In part, MSA's constitution states that the group's objective is "to strengthen the bonds between Muslim students, both on and off campus.' Are those bonds stronger today than they were on Sept. 10?

In different ways, yeah. After Sept. 11, SUMA (Sisters United Muslim Association), the girls' organization, and MSA also had just talks, days where we sat at our meetings and talked about, like, how we dealt with it, and what has happened to us, because nobody bothered to think, "Well, maybe the Muslims are grieving also. Maybe they lost some people.'

We sat down and coped together, and talked together about it. In that respect, I think our friendships have grown stronger. But before that, I think we were just as strong. We've always cared about each other and been there for each other.

St. Petersburg Times Link