WASHINGTON, March 16 (RNS)--When Tarek Elgawhary was looking at colleges three years ago, he wanted the things most students want--strong academics, a friendly campus and a reputable degree.

But when he finally decided to attend George Washington University here, there was another factor at work. GWU has a Muslim student population of almost 1,000 students, and to Elgawhary, that was as important as anything else.

"I was interested in going to a place where there was a large, strong Muslim community," said Elgawhary, now a junior majoring in religion. "In the final decision, it was a factor."

As more and more students like Elgawhary seek out Muslim-friendly campuses, they are finding increasing numbers of colleges that are also willing to accommodate their religious needs. These students, who celebrated the end of the Hajj pilgrimage season Thursday, find that having their own facilities makes it easier to be away from home during important holidays.

"There is no way to overemphasize the importance of prayer to Muslim students," said Elgawhary's roommate, Faisal Matadar. "It is probably the most defining thing about us on campus."

A number of small and large colleges are building student centers or designating space for their Muslim students, just as they built Hillel centers for Jewish students or Newman centers for Catholics.

The growing acceptance of Muslim college students, however, also represents the continued mainstreaming of one of America's fastest-growing--and least-understood--religions. A generation ago, Muslim students were almost entirely foreign-born and had little voice on campus. Now, however, their American-born children are fueling what some say is a renaissance in American Islam.

The first Muslim student association was formed at the University of Illinois in 1963. As American Muslims grapple to define their identity in middle America, they find themselves immersed in the sometimes-difficult process of assimilation, a struggle faced by Catholics in the 19th century and Jews in the 20th.

"Our parents were inclined to accept the answer that some (colleges) could not give you a prayer room because of the separation of church and state," said Hussein El-Genk, the vice president of the Muslim Students' Association of the USA and Canada. "But for the students who were born and raised here, we say, `Hey, I need to do this and this is my right to do this.'"

The building boom on campuses can be seen at both small and large universities. At the University of Miami, students and alumni are looking to raise $4.5 million to build a 14,000-square-foot Muslim Student Center. And at GWU, where Elgawhary and Matadar found a thriving Muslim population, officials outfitted a student union room with traditional foot baths to allow students to wash their feet before prayers and created separate entrances for men and women.

For years, Muslim students at GWU--a school of about 20,000 students with a large international population--competed for prayer space with the school's other student groups. But now they have their own designated space to pray and hold events.

"It is a blessing for us to have our own space," Elgawhary said. "But it's more than a blessing. For us, it's a necessity."

Muslim students at the University of Miami also fought for a sacred space of their own. When they couldn't find a room, they met outside for daily prayers, which was suitable in the balmy winter months but a problem in the rainy summer heat.

"We are not always the top priority," said Moiez Tapia, a professor of computer engineering at the University of Miami and an adviser to the college's Muslim students.

Tapia is trying to raise money for the new prayer center. He said the 20-year-old campaign met some initial hesitation from foreign donors because of a university policy that says a building that goes unused for a year will revert to general use. Under Islamic law, once a mosque is built, it can never be used for another purpose. University officials say they have no reason to believe they will ever have to take the mosque back.

When Tapia's generation first came to the United States in the 1960s and '70s, they found few resources available on college campuses. Some larger, urban schools had small Muslim student associations, but smaller liberal arts colleges had little to offer the new wave of immigrant students.

That has all changed, said Mahboubul Hassan, a professor at New Hampshire College in Manchester, N.H., a small liberal arts college of about 1,800 students. When Hassan came to the U.S. from Bangladesh to study at Boston University, he said the school had a small Muslim student group which, 30 years later, is now thriving. Hassan said the small student group at New Hampshire College will eventually grow like the groups at larger universities.

The school has given Muslim students the use of a gymnasium to hold daily prayers, although Hassan said Muslim students still have to compete with other student groups for space. The school's prayer services are the only Islamic services offered in the entire state of New Hampshire and as many outsiders as students come to pray, he said.

"In the major cities like Boston or New York, there are resources," Hassan said, "but it takes time in smaller cities. But it is happening."

Similar steps are being taken at other small schools with historically small Muslim populations. In Massachusetts, Babson College's new chapel has made room for Islamic prayers. Students there will be joining Muslim students in fasting for the holy lunar month of Ramadan, which starts this year in November, said the school's chaplain, the Rev. Thomas Sullivan.

Some Muslim leaders say there is a lot to be gained for colleges that accommodate Muslim students. With somewhere between an estimated 5 million and 6 million Muslims now living in the U.S., colleges are competing for their tuition dollars and trying to lure those students into medical, science and engineering programs.

"I think lots of administrations have realized that Muslim students are an asset to the community and campus in terms of diversity," said El-Genk, the vice president of the Muslim Students' Association of the USA and Canada, and a senior at the University of New Mexico. "Muslim groups and facilities are now listed in college brochures. As the Muslim community grows, they want to attract that segment of the population."

There are other ways that schools are trying to accommodate Muslim students. Several schools, including GWU and the University of Virginia, offer dining options featuring halal meats, which means they have been prepared in accordance with Muslim religious law. Other schools adjust their dining schedules during Ramadan to allow students to eat at night, outside of regularly scheduled times, when the fast breaks for the day.

Still, many Muslim students continue to face deep-seated misconceptions and stereotypes about their religion. El-Genk's organization spends a lot of time working with Muslim student groups who say they are encountering discrimination on their campuses.

Recently, the umbrella group worked with Orange County Community College in California after the school's administration would not allow Muslim students to pray in an empty room in the student union, citing the separation of church and state. School officials eventually apologized and offered the students a partitioned area to pray.

Despite lingering misunderstanding, Muslim leaders say accommodating religious diversity on college campuses is good for both the students and American religious pluralism.

"This is definitely a good thing," said Sayyid Sayeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, which grew out of the muslim student association movements of the 1960s. "What would America gain, what would Christianity gain, if these students' religious needs were not recognized?"

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