Muslims in Montana
Hailing from Illinois to Indonesia
BY CAROL SCHMIDT
The 29-year-old electrical engineering major from Cicero, Illinois, 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, said the religion and the people who follow it are frequently misunder-stood. 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 misconcep-tion 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 shed light on the religion and its beliefs at the Muslim Student Association's day-long symposium on Islam in America held Monday, Feb. 22, in the MSU Strand Union.
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 permis-sion 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 while praying, so sometimes she stays home to pray with her two-year-old daughter. Anggraini's husband is atten-ding 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 experi-enced 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."
MSU News Service
Editor’s note: Traveling in Indo-nesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, and knowing Muslims locally, one finds little that validates preconceptions. As in the U.S., adherence to customs vary, though Islamic tradition is the norm. Indonesian cultural influences though are very diverse due to the country’s history. Indigenous spiritualism predating Islam, paranormal practises, and Hindu customs (the archipelago was once Hindu) may merge with Islam in a particular family or area. In Indonesia, in my experience, a minority of women wear headscarves (kerudung), nor should one necessarily expect a Muslim woman to wear one in Bozeman, and they can be worn as fashion statements, just as the entire body may be covered for secular reasons—modesty, or to avoid impolite male advances in the city.
The practice of Islam, while central to much of the culture, coincides with an array of beliefs, ancient and modern. That diversity is reflected in Indonesians who live in Montana, including those who are Muslims.