For some of Ohio State’s Muslim students, Osama bin Laden was more than a terrorist. The leader of al-Qaida was also a thief, who stole their religion’s identity.
Since September 2001, Muslims around the country have struggled with the misperceptions of Islam propagated by a small, but highly visible group of radicals that the Saudi-born bin Laden led.
But a week after his death, Muslim students at OSU said they are hopeful that his demise will bring about a new era for Islam.
“What really drew me to Islam was 9/11,” said Meredith Spano, a second-year in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. Spano converted to Islam only a year ago, but said the events of nearly a decade ago sparked her interest in the faith.
“It left me wondering, what is this thing that drove people to commit such horrible acts?” Spano said. “But I came to learn it’s so much more than that.”
Spano said it was after years of learning about Islam through her own research and talking with Muslims that she finally decided to convert. Spano was raised by Catholic parents and grew up in that church.
“It was hard in the beginning,” Spano said of her conversion. “But it’s gotten easier with time. I mean, we live in a world where you can be whatever you want, ideally.”
The 9/11 attacks brought a great deal of attention to Islam, particularly from non-Muslims like Spano. Unlike Spano, however, many people made assumptions about the faith and reacted violently toward the religion.
“I knew some people who were shot at,” said Shammas Malik, a second-year Muslim student studying political science and international studies.
Malik said he has never personally been assaulted or discriminated against, but he knew growing up that his faith was not universally respected.
“I think people think of Muslims as these stereotypical, hard-line fanatics,” Malik said. “I mean, Islam is so diverse. This one man does not represent us.”
Malik said the death of bin Laden is made even more meaningful for Muslims because of his distortion of their faith.
“I think that Muslims more than anyone feel the impact of this,” Malik said. “Because they know what it is like to have their religion hijacked by a mad man.”
Despite the negative impact bin Laden had on Islam, Maria Ahmad, a fourth-year in political science and president of the Muslim Student’s association, said she is unhappy with the way the U.S. chose to dispose of his body.
“As an American I’m really happy that there is one less terrorist in the world,” Ahmad said. “But he claimed to be Muslim and he should have had the Muslim ritual burial.”
The U.S. government said it made an effort to care for bin Laden’s body in accordance with Muslim tradition, but many believe the disposal of his body at sea was not the appropriate choice. Malik, Spano and Ahmad agreed that this was not the traditional burial.
“Maybe it was just a miscommunication,” Spano said. “But I hope that they tried to make the effort.”
Spano was happy with the president’s decision not to release photos of bin Laden’s corpse, however. She said she knows some people want proof he is dead, but worries about the long-term effects.
“I have mixed emotions. Obviously he was a man who did so much damage to something I hold very dear,” Spano said. “But I think it was the right decision. In the end it would fuel the feelings of the opposition.”
With or without the photos, Muslim students around campus agree the death of bin Laden comes as a relief.
“I think that Muslim-Americans are immensely glad just like other Americans,” Malik said. “Not just because of the fear of terror, but also the symbol he represents. We finally have freedom from the boogie man that we’ve feared for the last decade.”