Colleges must do more to support Muslim students (opinion)

Sadaf Jaffer recently completed two terms in Montgomery Township, N.J., serving as the first Muslim mayor in the United States. Now a postdoctoral research associate at the Institute for International and Regional Studies at Princeton University, on Sept. 11, 2001, she was a freshman at Georgetown University, where she could see the Pentagon burning from campus. “I remember just a sense of fear, certainly among the Muslim students, about not wanting to be alone around campus,” she told USA Today.

Just two years before, in 1999, Imam Yahya Hendi became the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University -- the first full-time Muslim chaplain at any college in the United States -- where he says the “intensity and magnitude” of the job picked up after Sept. 11. “Sometimes you go home in tears,” he said in 2017, when he was still guiding Georgetown students facing discrimination for being Muslim almost two decades later. “Sometimes it’s been very exhausting.” Muslim students, in fact, encountered a spike in anti-Muslim sentiment and hate crimes on campus during the Trump administration, as President Trump signed what would become known as the Muslim ban and attempted to revoke F-1 visas for international students taking online classes in fall 2020.

In the 20 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, which Americans memorialized just last month, strides have been made to make college campuses more inclusive to minoritized students. However, research suggests that higher education institutions have not done enough to address the distinct challenges that Muslim students continue to face. Broad efforts to promote diversity and inclusion have simply not been adequate. Intentional and focused initiatives on behalf of Muslim students are necessary to ensure they enjoy a safe and supportive campus experience.

Unsafe and Unsupported

Recent research shows that too often today the opposite is happening -- many Muslim students instead continue to feel quite unsafe on their campuses. And with good reason: between 2009 and 2017, the number of on-campus religion-based hate crimes -- mostly involving Jewish and Muslim targets -- nearly doubled, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In California alone, 40 percent of Muslim college students reported facing harassment or discrimination during the 2019-20 academic year. MSA West, a nonprofit serving 3,000 Muslim students across 30 California campuses, discovered that nearly four out of five women (79 percent) whom they surveyed in 2019 reported experiencing religious discrimination on campus, as did 63 percent of male participants. The survey also found that 38 percent reported experiencing abuse from peers, 15 percent from campus professors and 11 percent from campus administrators.

In a nationwide study, the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS), nearly a quarter of Muslim students (23 percent) reported that faculty and staff members don’t accommodate their religious holidays. Similarly, the University of Southern California’s Center for Education, Identity and Social Justice surveyed Muslim students in 2017 and found that while participants reported receiving support from specific individuals on campus, most said they didn’t feel that their campus or administration collectively did much to support them.

One participant of that study observed, “When it comes to policies surrounding religious accommodation, the [administration] might feel that they’re all for it, but the onus is on students to make that actually happen. They aren’t actively at the forefront trying to push for these types of policies.” Meanwhile, as other survey respondents noted, Muslim students have felt tokenized by institutions’ efforts to show them off in campus marketing to demonstrate that their campus is diverse, especially given the lack of support they perceive.

Diversity and Inclusion Are Not Enough

Muslim students shouldn’t be saddled with the sole responsibility of advocating for their own safety and inclusion on campus. At the same time, administrators and faculty should not assume that diversity and inclusion programs alone will cover the distinct challenges that Muslim students face on campus. That’s because many of those programs don’t touch religious diversity and inclusion at all. The most recent IDEALS survey discovered that fewer than half of students across all institutional types, including just 40 percent of public university students, reported exposure to religious diversity education at orientation or other required campus events.

And even when any campuswide efforts to recognize and celebrate religious diversity are offered, while they may be somewhat helpful, they are far from enough. Researchers and experts -- many of them Muslim -- recommend developing other, more targeted, interventions to address anti-Muslim attitudes on campuses.

What might some of those interventions be? How can colleges and universities better support Muslim students and combat Islamophobia?

In 2017, the Center for Education, Identity and Social Justice hosted the Summit on (De)Institutionalizing Islamophobia on College Campuses. More than 90 faculty, staff and students from 20 different higher education institutions and organizations attended or presented at the event.

Attendees were asked to draft a commitment to combat at least one aspect of Islamophobia at their respective institution or organization. Commitment themes included:

  • Dedicating space, staff and resources to supporting Muslim students;
  • Setting a campus definition and acknowledgment of Islamophobia; and
  • Raising the visibility of Muslim students through data and programming.

The center has also recommended that institutions “invest and create a centralized mechanism to identify discrimination and hate directed at Muslim college students, investigate incidents of hate and discrimination, and follow through with actionable steps to address and resolve the issue.”

Syracuse University, in conjunction with Muslim Student Life and Chaplain Amir Duric, began offering incoming Muslim students a “pre-welcome” mentoring program in August 2021. The program provides students with an opportunity to meet new people, receive guidance from peers, identify resources on campus and explore the campus before classes begin. Shenandoah University hired its first Muslim chaplain in 2019 to address Muslim students’ spiritual needs as well as create safe spaces where they can pray and discuss their concerns.

At Georgia Institute of Technology, biomedical engineering major Eeman Uddin was sought out by a professor, who asked if she and her classmates needed a comfortable space to pray. “He offered an empty room and told us he would vouch for us if we had any unfortunate run-ins,” she said, adding, “Even one teacher who recognizes me for who I am instead of solely my academic performance makes a drastic difference in the way I participate and show up in class and among my peers.”

Based on my research on the topic, I also suggest that faculty and staff members should consider becoming a mentor for a Muslim student. My organization, Springtide Research Institute, recently discovered that a quarter of young Muslims say their lives lack meaning and purpose, a notably higher proportion than their Jewish (14 percent) and Christian peers (13 percent). However, even just one adult mentor -- whether it be a professor, religious leader, even employer -- can significantly improve a young Muslim’s confidence that their life indeed has meaning and purpose.

Despite the initial rush of unity after Sept. 11, division and polarization now take its place in America. Part of that is manifested as a continuation and even heightening of anti-Muslim bias. But Muslim students need and deserve the support of higher education institutions. The IDEALS survey discovered that out of all the religious and nonreligious groups in the study, Muslim students leave college the most committed to making positive contributions to society -- which includes having goodwill toward people of other beliefs and a willingness to work across differences to solve common problems.

American society needs more Muslim college graduates and should make them feel welcome and included here. Whatever investment that we in higher education can make to support their ability to flourish on our campuses will be well worth it.

Kevin Singer (@kevinsinger0) is a Ph.D. student in higher education at North Carolina State University and head of media and public relations for Springtide Research Institute.

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Campus Divestment Activists Aren't Secret Haters Who Support Violence (essay)

As a graduate student involved in a campaign to persuade the University of California to divest from companies that are involved in the occupation of the Palestinian territories, I feel compelled to respond to former University of California President Mark Yudof’s recent broadside against our work. His characterization of the campus boycott, divestment and sanctions movement as irrational and intolerant is wrong and demands a rejoinder.

Before making the case for divestment, it is important to establish the circumstances that have stimulated widespread support for this campaign. Although there is a general consensus that Israel’s nearly 50-year occupation of the Palestinian territories should end, people are in much less agreement about what to do to end the occupation and help Palestinians achieve freedom. For the past 20 years, the answer that Americans most commonly have accepted has been to allow what began in 1993 as the Oslo peace process to run its course, producing a negotiated solution that ended the occupation and produced two states living side by side.

Sadly, the peace process has produced very little. The Obama administration recently stated that it did not believe that a peace deal would be at all possible, or that negotiations would perhaps even be restarted, during the remainder of the president’s term. It is hard to see the next administration (Republican or Democratic) being willing to invest as much time and energy into the peace process as John Kerry did during his marathon negotiations in 2013 and 2014. Thus, “Waiting for Oslo” has gone from a plausible option in the 1990s to a polite way of saying you’ve given up in the 2010s.

But as any empathetic observer of the day-to-day reality in Israel-Palestine would agree, not having an option is not an option. As Secretary of State Kerry recently stated in an interview with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, “It is not an answer to simply continue to build in the West Bank and to destroy the homes of the other folks you’re trying to make peace with and pretend that that’s a solution.”

Despite this axiomatic truth, few besides the Palestinians themselves have offered any compelling alternatives to this costly and destructive status quo. Therefore, the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions should be considered an alternative solution that deserves our honest consideration -- particularly in the absence of any other compelling plan to get from the status quo to a resolution of the occupation.

Students across the country have responded to this call by advocating for divestment -- a campaign to pressure colleges and universities to drop their investments in companies directly involved in human rights and international law violations in what is supposed to be the future Palestinian state. Although this type of campaign is not a substitute for the political processes that are necessary to end the occupation, the logic of the campaign is that the economic pressure of divestment can slow the growth of settlements, checkpoints and the rest of the infrastructure of the occupation, while also adding general pressure on the Israeli government to end it altogether.

Consider the companies targeted by the divestment campaigns at the University of California: American and multinational corporations like Hewlett Packard, Caterpillar and Cemex. HP provides electronic services for the checkpoints that prevent Palestinians from traveling to work, school and neighboring towns. Caterpillar provides the armored bulldozers used by the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian homes throughout the occupied territories, and particularly in the beleaguered Area C of the West Bank. Cemex provides building material for illegal settlements and the wall that snakes through the West Bank, cutting off Palestinians from their lands. None of these facts are disputed -- even many campus groups that oppose divestment generally agree that the corporations in question are violating Palestinian human rights.

But given that such companies are involved in perpetuating the occupation, divesting from them shouldn’t be particularly controversial. It should be relatively easy for someone who supports a two-state solution also to support divesting from the companies that are stifling the possibility of that very solution. Saying that you want to end the occupation but demanding that we continue investing in it is an ineffective and contradictory position.

This, in sum, is the position of many students in the UC system: We want to see Palestinians achieve their freedom, and we think divestment is the best tool available to us to help support that outcome. Although students have a variety of opinions about what the future should look like in Israel-Palestine, virtually everyone would cheer any positive outcome that gained the support of Palestinians themselves. And many students see the UC’s prior divestment decisions, including its recent decision to divest from private prisons, as a sign that student activism can contribute to social justice domestically and internationally.

Ultimately, it is perfectly fine for former President Yudof and others to choose not to support divestment. Many well-meaning people don’t, and it doesn’t make them bad people. But what is really objectionable about Yudof’s comments is his attempt to demonize those who do support divestment. Fearmongering about students who are often roughly a third his age is offensive and undignified.

Yudof’s characterizations of divestment activists don’t apply to me and don’t reflect my experiences in this movement. Campus divestment activists aren’t secret haters, don’t support violence and didn’t hoodwink other progressive students into supporting these campaigns. Rather, we are students from all walks of life whose support for social justice and human rights leads us to work to divest from companies undermining those basic principles. This support is seen outside of campuses as well. Recent polling shows that a plurality of Americans prioritize human rights when considering Israel-Palestine, and furthermore that nearly 40 percent of Americans and 25 percent of Jewish Americans support boycotts or sanctions against Israeli settlements.

If Yudof has an alternative to divestment that he thinks will be more persuasive to the public, he should add it to the debate. But opposing divestment while offering no compelling alternative amounts to tacitly endorsing a status quo of continued occupation with horrible consequences -- primarily for Palestinians, but also for Israelis as well.

Rahim Kurwa is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles.

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The New Campus Culture Wars

I was an undergraduate in the mid-1990s, the heyday of identity politics. We read copious amounts of Cornel West and bell hooks, demanded multicultural centers and gender studies departments, applauded Ellen’s coming out and protested demeaning mascots like Chief Illiniwek. “Race-class-gender-ethnicity-sexuality” was repeated so often, it almost became a single word.

No doubt parts of the identity politics movement went off the cliff (down with Western Civ!). And there was pushback, of course (only the West has civilization!). But over all, university administrations recognized an important opportunity and charted a sensible middle course.

In a society with too much racism and sexism, in a globalized world with too much ignorance and misunderstanding, campuses could be alternate universes – models where equity, harmony and appreciative knowledge of other cultures were the norm, launching pads for leaders who absorbed that larger vision and learned the skill set to improve the broader society when they graduated.

So new centers were started, new professors hired, new course requirements added. And most importantly, new norms were set. College leaders at the highest level defined their campuses as models of inclusiveness and open-minded learning. Incidents that were seen as marginalizing a particular group (white students showing up to a party in blackface), or books like The Bell Curve that argued that some races simply had lower aptitude than others, were met with the higher education equivalent of social outrage. Of course, the flags of “free speech” and “academic inquiry” were raised, but the mantle of building an inclusive learning community carried the day.

Muslim students waking up to chalk drawings mocking the Prophet Muhammad on their college quads are probably likely wondering why their identity is not a cherished part of the college ethos of inclusiveness. In case you missed it, “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” which is today, is a campaign that has hit several campuses already and has the potential to scale, fast.

The only ingredients you need are a handful of students who believe they are crusaders for free speech, some chalk and the cover of darkness. The campaign was sparked by Comedy Central’s decision to censor an episode of “South Park” that depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a demeaning manner. “South Park” has a reputation for offending roundly, and is, of course, on a cable channel people pay for and opt in to. A college quad is a public place where there is an implicit promise by the university that students of all backgrounds will feel safe and accepted.

When there is a racially demeaning event on a college campus – like the Compton CookOut at the University of California at San Diego – higher education responds like it’s a five-alarm fire. Administrators organize town hall meetings to discuss the threats to inclusiveness, Presidents send out e-mails to the whole campus calling for racial sensitivity. Faculty committees are formed to submit recommendations on how to make minority students feel welcome. The incident is used, appropriately, as a teachable moment, an opportunity to affirm and expand the university as an inclusive learning environment.

If there was any alarm raised by higher education in response to the chalking Muhammad incidents, it’s been hard to hear. (With the important exception of chaplaincies on certain campuses that have adapted to engage religious diversity.) For the most part, the discussion has been in the free speech vs. Fundamentalist Islam frame. But isn’t this incident also a teachable moment about identity? Shouldn’t universities be boldly advancing the narrative of actions that build an inclusive campus vs. actions that marginalize a community?

While this particular incident may be about the sensitivities of Muslim students, there is a much larger issue at play here. What the race-class-gender-ethnicity-sexuality movement of the 1990s missed was religion. But faith can’t be swept under the rug any longer. Religion is the new fault line in the culture wars. From the “The Passion of the Christ” to the passions raised by the Middle East, from the new aggressive atheism to the religious revival among evangelicals and Muslims, conflicts in the culture are quickly becoming conflicts on the quad.

Colleges ought to view this as an opportunity to be embraced, rather than a headache to be ignored. Just as campuses became models of multiculturalism, so too can they become models of interfaith cooperation. After all, campuses gather students from different religious backgrounds (including no religion at all), they view themselves as a vanguard sector that models positive behavior for the broader culture, and they already have an ethos of pluralism.

An awful lot is at stake here, especially if campuses want to maintain their reputation as inclusive learning environments. Just about the only agreement among different religious student groups right now is that the only identity you can openly insult on a campus without inviting social outrage is religion.

And as far as being the nation’s flagship learning environments, higher education ought to consider this: Probably the most salient thing many U.S. college students know about the central figure in the world’s second largest religion -- among the most influential people in history -- is that Comedy Central won’t let him be portrayed on South Park.

Eboo Patel
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Eboo Patel is the founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that works with college campuses on religious diversity issues.

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