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FIU Grad's Photo Series Aims to Change Perception of Islam

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Sana Ullah and her sister were shopping at Sawgrass Mills when they realized it was time to pray. They grabbed "probably the ugliest shirt" in the store, she recalls, and hurried into a changing room.

The whole situation had Ullah laughing to herself. It was hardly the first time she'd prayed somewhere unusual: As a devout Muslim, she stops what she's doing five times a day to pray. This time, though, it gave the South Florida native an idea.

"I can name so many locations I've prayed before, and maybe most of the places I've prayed have not been inside a mosque," the 24-year-old photographer and Florida International University graduate says. "So I decided it'd be really fun to do a series where I could take pictures of people praying in locations outside of mosques."

Places You'll Pray started in January 2015 as a fun project but began taking on more weight in recent months, as anti-Muslim incidents spiked (a report by Georgetown University's Bridge Initiative found 2015 saw the most of any year since the 9/11 attacks). Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump advocated banning Muslims from entering the United States following the Islamic State-inspired mass shooting in San Bernardino. 

Now, Ullah hopes her photo series — which shows people praying at sites including the Grand Canyon, Universal Studios Orlando, and Central Park, as well at milestones such as high-school prom, a graduation ceremony, and a wedding — will help change how Muslims are viewed. She has posted more than 300 of the images on Instagram. Some are taken by her; others have been submitted by people around the world. Maybe people will look at them and see that peace is central to Islam, she says. 
"If one person can see Muslims in a brighter light or in a positive way," Ullah says, "I think I've succeeded." 

Lately, Ullah has noticed that people have become "a little more bold" in their prejudices, she says, adding, "I never noticed how many friends I have on Facebook that are not big fans of Muslims." She's also gotten comments from people on the streets — usually along the lines of "go back to your own country."

If the person doesn't seem threatening, Ullah will respond that this is her country. ("You can tell I'm a Miamian because I always have something to say back," she quips.) 

Ullah says many do not understand the Islamic faith. She wants Places You'll Pray to encourage people to ask questions. "I feel like if we keep ideas in our head and don't ask the questions in our heads, we start to answer them ourselves," she says. "And lots of times, it's wrong."

Because of recent events, Ullah says, she believes Muslims are not praying in public as often. She adds that some people have told her she's brave for wearing hijab, and some of her friends don't want anyone to know they're Muslim. So her project, which is also part of her thesis for graduate school at George Washington University, has another goal.

"It's kind of like, 'Hear us now; look at us. Whatever you feel against Muslims, it's not affecting us, and we're still going to practice, we're still going to do what we do,'" Ullah says. "I guess to encourage people it's OK. It's OK to be Muslim."

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