Interview with Bakhtawar Riaz, a director of Islam Awareness Week

Why is it so important to have an Islam Awareness Week and what kind of message are you trying to get out to students?  

The objective of the week is just to get students to come and interact with other Muslim students and ask them any questions. There’s a lot of questions that people have and they don’t ask them—maybe because they feel uncomfortable or awkward or don’t want to be judged. This kind of gives you the chance to just come and ask any questions you have without feeling judged or anything.

Also, with the different topics we had, we tried to make them based on common misconceptions that people have—the hijab, who is Muhammed, the Quran, Jihad—that type of stuff. It’s basically to just have a discussion and ask anything you want.

How would you rate the reception you’ve had this week?

Really well, I think it’s probably one of the most successful IAWs we’ve had. I think it’s because this year we had events, whereas last year we didn’t really have any, we just had discussions.

Most people were very happy and willing to engage, saying ‘good job’ and it’s great that you’re doing this. I’ve been doing [IAW] for three years, when I first joined TMSA, and I’ve never had anything negative.

What does the TMSA do throughout the rest of the year?

We have social events and awareness events. This year we did charity week which was a charity related event. We do different things that we think people will be interested in. The point of [TMSA] is not only to help educate people, Muslims and non-Muslims, but also to provide a platform for Muslim students to come and be comfortable in the environment.

Students coming in from other countries or out of Peterborough kind of want to find a community. My opinion of [TMSA] is it kind of gives you that chance to meet some of the other Muslims and hang out and learn.

Can you talk a little bit about #myjihad, what that movement is, and what Jihad itself actually is?

The #myjihad movement started in America just to tackle the misconceptions that both Muslims and non-Muslims have with the word. Basically, it’s to educate [everybody] that Jihad doesn’t mean Holy War or anything like that.

Our lecture, given by the Imam of our Mosque, said that no war is holy. There’s no such thing as a holy war in Islam and war in Islam is a last resort to anything.

Photo of Imam Khalid Emil at the "Qur'an: Miracles and Misconceptions" lecture given as part of Islam Awareness Week. Photo by Jenny Fisher.
Photo of Imam Khalid Emil at the “Qur’an: Miracles and Misconceptions” lecture given as part of Islam Awareness Week. Photo by Jenny Fisher.

Basically, the idea of [#myjihad] is to educate people that jihad actually means to strive and to struggle, and it usually means the war within yourself. So we’re just asking people what is the war within yourself and we’ve gotten some pretty interesting responses. We got patience, procrastination, someone said gluten. That’s the point of it.

Can you expand a little bit on the word Jihad and the problematic nature of how it’s used in mainstream media today, sort of how important it is that people know its true meaning?  

It’s very important, I would say, because when you hear the word Jihad you should know that it’s probably completely out of context and doesn’t make sense. When people hear the word jihad, they automatically think terrorist attack or they’re scared.

But now, if they came to our booths and understood what the real meaning of it is, then they’ll know that [the media] is not using it properly and this is really not what Islam is about, nor what jihad is about. I guess it kind of enforces critical thinking skills in individuals.

Following the interview, Bakhtawar also wanted to say “thank you” to everybody that came to the event and asked questions. She also added that the TMSA has free resources for anybody who would like to know more, including free Qurans, brochures, and other information.