Living in the ultra-Christian south, some students of other religions face a peculiar blend of acceptance and uneasiness in a college town that is part Bible Belt, part progressive haven.
Of adults in Arkansas, 79% consider themselves Christians, according to the Pew Research Center. Less than 2% consider themselves to be Muslims, while Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu people each account for less than 1% of religious adults in Arkansas.
For Samriti Gupta, a UA master’s student who practices Hinduism, living in a predominantly Christian area has not affected how she practices her own religion, she said. She thinks it is important that people of different religions do not try to force their religions onto each other, and is grateful that people in Northwest Arkansas usually do not.
Gupta’s family is from the northern part of India, and the majority of Hindu people she has met in Arkansas are from the southern part of India, she said. Hindu practices, including the specific gods worshipped, vary among the country’s many regions.
“Growing up, I saw different types of people worshipping different sides of the religion,” Gupta said. “It has been rewarding to see how other people practice the religion and what they believe in.”
In addition to attending the HANWA Hindu Temple in Bentonville, Gupta said she found a sense of community with the Indian Student Association at the UofA.
Matt Brasko, a non-traditional Jewish student, attends the Chabad of Northwest Arkansas in Rogers. Brasko said his style of worship fits well with the Chabad, which is one of the world’s largest Hasidic movements. Hasidism is focused around returning the Jewish community to a traditional, Orthodox practice of Judaism.
“I really enjoy getting together with other Jewish people in the area and practicing Judaism, whether that’s practicing the Talmud or the Torah, singing, or eating our ethnic foods,” Brasko said. “Just having that sense of community is really nice.”
Brasko said it has sometimes been a struggle to intertwine his Jewish cultural practices with Southern culture. Growing up in Fayetteville, Brasko and his family observed Shabbat, which is the Jewish day of rest that begins Friday evening and concludes Saturday at sunset. This observance strained many of his friendships because he was unavailable most of the weekend, he said.
It can also be hard to find Kosher products, which are foods prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws, in NWA, Brasko said.
Abubakar Qasim, a junior and former president of the UA Muslim Student Association, has had a similar experience with food and religion. Any meat he consumes must be zabiha, meaning it has been slaughtered according to Islamic guidelines, he said.
The majority of meat in America is not considered zabiha, so Qasim can only buy meat at specific stores and has to be careful when ordering at restaurants, he said.
Along with the challenges of blending their cultures with the local culture, the students said they worry about hate crimes living in the south.
Brasko said he is sometimes hesitant to openly express his faith because of microaggressions he has experienced, such as children teasing him about his beliefs when he was younger. However, he thinks most people in NWA do not share the mentality of his childhood bullies.
Gupta said she gets upset when she sees stories about hate crimes committed against people of minority religions on the news, but she does not worry about such crimes occurring in NWA.
“I feel like around here it’s very safe,” Gupta said. “People are very open and respectful.”
Qasim said he has experienced anti-Muslim discrimination in his hometown of White Hall, Arkansas, where his high school principal, Mark Jelks, was caught sharing derogatory messages about Muslims on Facebook. Jelks no longer works for the district.
“I want people to know that the religion of Islam is a peaceful religion,” Qasim said. “We have no violence, no hate [and] no terrorism in our religion at all.”
Qasim said that although the NWA Muslim community is small, he has formed a deeper connection to his religion and to other Muslim students at the Islamic Center of Northwest Arkansas.
Qasim said he centers every aspect of his life around his religion and leaves room in his schedule to pray five times a day. He is thankful to live in an area where he can pray openly and not be judged, especially after growing up in White Hall.
“The Northwest Arkansas community has been outwardly open, understanding and empathetic towards minority groups compared to other areas in Arkansas,” Qasim said. “Yet, room for improvement should always be implemented. We should collectively work to break down barriers of ignorance and learn of acceptance, inclusion and diversity, the way the Prophet [Muhammad] taught us.”