How colleges can better support Muslim students (essay)

Islamophobia continues to grow in the United States, where 45 percent of the population holds negative perceptions about Muslims. The rise of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has helped fan the flames of America’s animosity towards Muslims, but it began well before his candidacy.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations reported that, between 2009 and 2010 alone, there was “a 50 percent rise in anti-Muslim vandalism, a 150 percent rise in Islamophobic rhetoric and a 300 percent rise in violence.” That, combined with increasing visibility of Muslim Americans, has unfortunately resulted in violence toward Muslim students.

For example, after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Muslim students studying in Boston reported avoiding areas surrounding the bombing site because of hate slurs and threats directed at them, especially toward women who wear the hijab. Nationally, Muslim students reported racist comments, microaggressions and discrimination on campuses, including being labeled as terrorists and physically assaulted by peers. Such assaults have intensified to killings, such as the murder of three college students near the University North Carolina at Chapel Hill in February 2015.

All of this has highlighted why colleges and universities must step forward and address the needs of Muslim students.

Student Services

Frequently, campus services directed toward Muslim students operate through student affairs offices in conjunction with other departments, such as student development, diversity or multicultural offices, and international student offices. Depending on the context and available resources, institutions have generally approached the issue by building greater cultural awareness, initiating campuswide programs targeting Muslim students and training faculty and staff members to appreciate Muslim students’ religious and cultural identities.

A few institutions serve as good examples in their approach to Muslim students. Historically, most secular campuses avoided devoting significant resources to religious programs, especially non-Christian ones, but now many acknowledge the importance of students’ religious identities. Several are adopting the concept of religious pluralism to mend cultural and religious conflicts on their campuses. Collectively, student development offices, student affairs offices and student religious groups are uniting to encourage greater representation of all religions and advocating coexistence.

A case in point is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which renovated several of former chapels and Christian centers to better accommodate the 28 student religious organizations at the university. Officials there advocated for spaces welcoming all religious groups, encouraging interfaith interactions and dialogue. Accommodating prayer rooms on the campus has received positive feedback, but at first MIT lost some support from Christian students when it redesigned a popular chapel into an interfaith space. Christian students felt Muslim students were impeding on their turf when Muslim students attended in large numbers a Jummah (Friday prayer) service at the newly renovated spiritual center. Despite that initial pushback, however, the efforts have ultimately united student religious and cultural groups and made Muslim students feel more included than ever.

Azfar Anwar, an Islamic studies scholar, commented that, while structural changes are vital, it is “more about sitting down and understanding each other.” As Islamophobia grows nationally, interfaith efforts must flourish. Therefore, institutions must provide funds, locations and time for students to engage in interfaith dialogues.

Campuses also need to expand their services outside of faith-based activities. For many women who wear hijabs, for example, gym hours can be uncomfortable due to the extra attention they may draw because of their attire. While they do not feel limited in the activities they can do, they wish to exercise in a more comfortable environment.

Thus, after Muslim students approached Harvard University’s athletic facilities about the issue, the athletics department partnered with the university’s student affairs office to investigate services other female students found desirable. After considering requests, Harvard’s Muslim Student Association, the student affairs office and athletic facilities established special women-only gym hours. For Harvard, the initiative helped not only women wearing hijabs but all other women on the campus by creating a more welcoming environment.

Special Counseling

Muslim students deal with visible societal discrimination, which can penetrate any campus atmosphere. As portrayals of Muslim violence and terror have echoed across the nation, Muslim students have struggled with how others perceive them. Some colleges and universities are now actively engaging guidance counselors to specifically support Muslim students combating these psychological challenges.

At George Washington University, the offices of diversity, student affairs and mental health services and the institution’s Muslim Students Association have partnered in supporting Muslim students stressed by harmful stereotypes and deconstructing those stereotypes. Together, they host discussions and workshops, encouraging all students to attend, where people learn how to handle harmful images, language and acts directed toward Muslim students. In addition, counselors offer free counseling specifically designed for Muslim students or any students dealing with issues related to their religious identity.

Safe Zones and Cultural Awareness

Most important, campuses need to develop safe zones and increase cultural awareness among faculty, staff and student populations and ensure a welcoming environment, not just for Muslim students, but for all.

Safe zones serve the purpose of providing students a location on the campus where they know they can truly be themselves without fear of judgment or discrimination. The establishment of safe zones has proved to be quite successful in providing Muslim students areas to explore their personal identities together, gather for cultural and religious events, and host educational and awareness programs regarding Islam.

“Having a safe space to pray, have religious talks or even just catch up with other Muslim students on campus created an amazing atmosphere for us students to feel comfortable in our own skin,” said Fatima Ahmed, a graduate student at the University of Chicago. In addition, Ahmed said, “this safe space allowed us to learn more about ourselves, who we were as students, Muslims or even just citizens in society. We learned how to better connect with other students and organizations on the campus, which proved to be a learning experience for everyone involved.” Such safe zones provide an escape for Muslim students, as for other underrepresented student groups, from what at times can be a stressful experience navigating the dominant campus culture.

In a recent study, Muslim students felt that few people outside of their religious communities understood their needs or how their religion might require them to adjust to their campuses in different ways than other students. “Being a Muslim woman who also wears a hijab has sometimes proved that people already have a judgment or an idea of the type of person I'm going to be like just by looking at me. There have been plenty of times where I have received negative comments or ignorant remarks,” said Ahmed. Thus, it’s important for institutions to train campus faculty and staff members and to develop collective knowledge on the distinct needs of Muslim students.

Colleges and universities, and their student affairs offices, should work to ensure that Muslim students can be as successful as possible. Through the establishment of safe zones and by increasing campus cultural awareness, institutions can not only become more welcoming of Muslim students but also encourage greater diversity in general. That added diversity brings a cultural depth to campuses and builds a greater sense of pluralism. In sum, positively welcoming Muslim students, and giving them opportunities to express their culture, provides benefits for all students.

Allen Kenneth Schaidle serves as an educational consultant and is pursuing an M.Sc. in education at the University of Oxford.

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Protest over killing of three Muslim students in North Carolina

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