Montana State University

MSU Muslim students come from a variety of backgrounds

February 22, 2010 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Rocky Yassin grew up Muslim in Cicero, Ill. The freshmen majoring in electrical engineering served seven years in the U.S. Air Force. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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Rocky Yassin may not be a typical Montana State University freshman, but in many ways he's a pretty all-American man.

The 29-year-old electrical engineering major from Cicero, Ill., likes to camp and hunt, has an extraordinarily firm handshake and answers questions with a crisp "Yes, ma'am." He's divorced yet passionate about being a good father to his young daughter, is unrelentingly patriotic and has a love affair with his new home state, Montana.

Because he came to MSU after serving seven years in the military, he said he has a more mature outlook than most students and a lot more life experience.

"I guess I'm like most people here," shrugs the former U.S. Air Force staff sergeant. "I'm human."

Yet, Yassin admits that there is one thing about him that is commonly misunderstood. Abdullah "Rocky" Yassin, who earned his nickname while serving as a staff sergeant in the Air Force Electrical Engineering Corps, is one of an estimated 100 MSU students who identify themselves as Muslim. While the religion is the faith of the majority in many areas around the globe, it is one of the smallest religious minorities in both Bozeman and Montana.

Perhaps because of that, Yassin, who grew up in an area with a much larger Muslim-American population, the religion and the people who follow it are frequently misunderstood. Most commonly, he said, people who learn of his religion are curious about Islam and ask him questions. But he said there is also a rampant and underlying misconception that Islam is linked to radicalism.

"Many people think that Islam is the same as terrorism and that isn't true," Yassin said. "In fact, the word Islam means peace."

Yassin and his colleagues hoped to shed a light on the religion and its beliefs at the Muslim Student Association's day-long symposium on Islam in America held Feb. 22 at MSU.

Yassin is the son of Palestinian immigrants who fled their war-torn country in the late 1960s, first to Puerto Rico and then to the Chicago area where Yassin was born. As a child, Yassin lived for two years with an uncle in Palestine in an area that was so rustic farmers still used mules.

"I wanted to learn where I came from," Yassin said. He said the experience was invaluable, but made him happy to have the freedoms he has in America.

A self-described "rebel" while he was growing up, Yassin admired one of his brothers who was a captain in the U.S. Army. Yassin got permission from his mother to enlist in the Air Force when he was just 17.

"I was going in the wrong direction in life but I cleaned up my act in the Air Force," said Yassin, who was stationed in Iraq, Germany and Great Falls, where he met and married a Great Falls woman. The two were divorced and after his honorable discharge, Yassin moved back home but decided he wanted to be closer to his daughter who lives in Great Falls.

"I didn't want to be a parent once or twice a year," he said. So he returned to Montana and enrolled in MSU to get a degree in the field he worked in during his military service. Ironically, one of his classes at MSU is Arabic. Although he speaks the language fluently, Yassin is taking Arabic classes to learn how to write it.

Yassin's experience is a world away from that of Niswatin "Nisa" Anggraini, an MSU land resources graduate student from Indonesia.

Like a growing number of devout Muslim women who chose to be covered to comply with Muslim tenets regarding female modesty, Anggraini is distinguished by her ever-present hijab, or head scarf. Anggraini said that Muslim women may chose, at about age 15, to wear the hijab in public. They are allowed to take off the scarf at home or in the company of other women. The same rule recommends that women cover their arms and legs.

Anggraini, a geologist who is at MSU on a scholarship from Exxon-Mobile Indonesia to study with MSU professor Jim Schmitt, said that the hijab doesn't hinder her, even when she is working in the field in remote areas of Yellowstone Park and Utah. Anggraini is researching carbonate preservation of dinosaur eggs and footprints.

Somewhat more problematic to practicing her religion in Bozeman is finding a place to pray during the Muslim five-times daily call to prayer. While she is in the MSU lab where she does her research, she ducks into a vacant room to pray.

"It's a little more difficult when I am in a van on fieldtrip," she says with the gentle smile that characterizes her.

Another small hardship for local Muslims is that there is no mosque in the entire state. Members of the local Muslim community rent a small MSU meeting room for Friday prayer. Anggraini explained that the Muslim religion requires that men and women be separated during the prayer service (at MSU sometimes they use a divider), so sometimes she stays home to pray with her two-year-old daughter. Anggraini's husband is attending English language classes in Bozeman.

"I am comfortable (with her religion) in any situation," Anggraini said.

Yet, despite the flexibilities needed to practicing the religion that is so central to her life, Anggraini said she's loved her time in Bozeman and at MSU. She said while she experienced one instance of prejudice in Bozeman, the reaction most people here have seems to be curiosity. Although, she, too, said that many Montanans seem to equate her religion with bad behavior, which is actually counter to its teachings.

"I tell them what you actually should see are people, not the religion," she said. "Bad behavior is not about the religion. It's about the person. Islam is trying to tell people about the good things in life."

For more information about the MSU Muslim symposium, go to the symposium's Web page at: http://www.montana.edu/diversity/islaminamerica.html or contact the Diversity Awareness Office at (406) 994-5801 or diversityawareness@montana.edu.

Phenocia Bauerle (406) 994-5801, phenocia.bauerle@montana.edu