by Ivey DeJesus
Associated Press Writer

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) —Mehdi Noorbaksh, associate professor of international affairs and coordinator of general education at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, fulfills the daily obligations of his faith, including praying several times a day. He keeps a prayer rug in his office and bows to Mecca in prayer.

Twice a day, Mehdi Noorbaksh puts aside professional duties and turns to God. In the privacy of his office at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, he unrolls a rug, bows in the direction of Mecca and prays. Like millions of Muslims, he prays five times a day, but more so during Ramadan Islam’s holy month.

DEVOTED—Mehdi Noorbaksh fulfills the daily obligations of his faith, including praying several times a day, in Harrisburg, Pa.

“It’s a special month,” said Noorbaksh, an associate professor of international affairs and a Muslim scholar. “Nobody can fight. Nobody can wage war. Muslims have to be very peaceful. They have to participate in an act of charity and be very affectionate. You cannot lie or gossip. This is a month of purification.”

Ramadan began last week and continues until Sept. 9.

To adhere to their faith at work or school, Muslims, in some cases, request from employers, supervisors and school officials break periods and private rooms for prayers, separate rooms to wait out lunch periods and basins for ablution, the foot washing required as a purity ritual before prayer.

“It’s not like you are trying to showcase something,” said Nathaniel Hassan, leader of Harrisburg Masjid and a retiree from the Pennsylvania Auditor General’s office. “What you are doing is asking to be excused for a few minutes.”

During Ramadan, which commemorates the time the faithful believe Allah handed Muhammad the teachings of the Quran, Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown.

Noorbaksh said Cumberland Valley School District permitted his children, now at the University of Pittsburgh, to spend the lunch hour in the school library during Ramadan.

Still, the public may not always comprehend the subtleties of the faith, and, is indeed, often swayed by preconceived notions.

“I was very skeptical when I was coming here,” said Jawad Anwar, an international student from Pakistan at Harrisburg Area Community College. “Even here I have been asked, ‘Oh, you are Muslim? Do you always get stopped by police?’”

Those incidents have been rare.

Temple University—along with Boston University and George Washington University—is among roughly 17 universities that have installed or have under construction footbaths for Muslim students. Temple is also among at least nine universities that have designated prayer rooms. Others include Stanford University, Emory University and the University of Virginia.

Yet, in the past, employers, schools and universities across the country that have answered to special requests from Muslims have come under criticism from groups citing violation of state-church separation and alleging special treatment.

Four years ago, a Cincinnati area school drew the ire of a local school board official, who accused the school of being overly accommodating, after it set aside a room for Muslim students during lunch periods for Ramadan.

Across central Pennsylvania, Muslims say their community has met growing tolerance and, at times, a sincere interest from those of other faiths to expand their understanding of Islam.

State government deals with special religious requests on an individual employee basis.

“There is a big difference in accommodating someone who works in an office or correctional facility with someone who works with road crews,” said Dan Egan, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Administration.

With a growing international student body—including about 15 Muslim families—the Army War College in Carlisle has long promoted understanding and respect among faiths, and has accommodated the needs of Muslims.

“It’s having a cultural understanding of the needs of any religion. But particularly for practicing Muslims not to have the capability to pray in a Muslim environment or to have a particular prayer room, I think that would cause personal and cultural discomfort,” said Col. Alpo Portelli, director of International Fellows Program. Washing facilities are just a few feet away.

Every year, faculty receive a memorandum detailing information on Ramadan observances and practices.

“For many Americans, Islam is still not as well understood,” Portelli said. “To have these individuals here practicing, they are able to help explain Islam and the broader tenets. But also able to be wonderful spokespersons, able to explain if there is too much emphasis on radicalism within Islam. They bring a good balancing perspective of their religion. A lot of time you don’t see that balance, particularly in the U.S. media.”

Invariably, not every practicing Muslim will have available an accommodating boss or school administrator. Even they seek and find God in the sterile confines of their 9-to-5 obligations.

“If my purpose in life is to submit to my creator, we should try to find a schedule that fits that. Nowadays, people look from the perspective of how can you work and will that conflict with prayer,” said Athar Aziz, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Harrisburg in Steelton. “But try to look at it from the other way. Should work conflict with our prayer? The whole idea is submission to God.”

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