How Can Colleges Help Muslim Students Feel Safer?

Islamophobia risks being normalized on some campuses.

by Oset Babur
Nov 8 2017, 3:28pm

Last week, the news reported that a student at University of Texas at Dallas discovered several copies of the Quran dumped into toilets in a campus bathroom. He reported what seemed like an anti-Muslim act to campus security, and local police got involved soon after. While nothing "out of the ordinary" has followed, the event is just another on a list that compounds concern for Muslim college students across the country. A recent FBI report shows that hate crimes against Muslim Americans rose by nearly 7 percent in 2015, and given the current political climate, that number could continue to rise. 

At New York University, one of the most progressive campuses in the US, a prayer space on campus was vandalized late last year, in the wake of the presidential election. Hina Afridi, a senior at NYU's Silver School of Social Work, frequently takes solace in her prayer sessions at NYU's Global Center (which was not the building vandalized). "It feels like home, and has allowed me to have a break when I feel overwhelmed," she says. She and other Muslim students share fears about Islamophobia becoming normalized after Trump's multiple iterations of a Muslim immigrant ban, despite having resources—like a full-time imam—that many other campuses lack.

NYU isn't the only college where Muslim students are feeling more anxious and afraid. Here's what the situation looks like on three campuses in different parts of the country—and what's being done to address it.

Columbia University
As an Ivy League university with an endowment of almost $10 billion, Columbia can afford to be a leader when it comes to building safe spaces and hiring staff to help support Muslim and minority students. Sarina Bajwa, who identifies as Pakistani-American, is in the process of receiving her masters in education in school psychology at Columbia University's Teachers College. She says that while Columbia has an active Muslim Students Association, it currently has no full-time imam, but does employ more than five different religious leaders for various sects of Christianity, as well as three Jewish chaplains.

When asked about why the University has chosen not to employ an imam for Barnard or Columbia, a representative from the Office of Religious Life cited two Muslim "spiritual leaders"—one of whom is a religious life fellow at the school, and the other an assistant chaplain. But neither of those staff members are employed as a resource for Muslim students the way a rabbi, for instance, is for Jewish students.

In order to feel more connected to the local Muslim community, Bajwa attends a Friday prayer session hosted on Columbia's main campus, but says the school doesn't exactly go out of its way to advertise it. "I had to navigate these spaces for myself," she says. Many of the events are organized by Columbia's Muslim Students Association. Recent examples include a panel that featured Muslim professionals discussing the intersection of faith and career, as well as "sister circles" for female Muslim students at Columbia and Barnard.

Ultimately, it's the students at Columbia who are taking the initiative to build the support network they need to feel comfortable. Bajwa says it's already having a positive impact on her mental health, but there's still room for improvement. "Students are having to self-advocate. We are working hard to assert our needs and fears, but that becomes very exhausting."

University of California at Los Angeles
Roughly 62 percent of California and 72 percent of Los Angeles county voted for Hillary Clinton. But voting stats alone don't account for the supportive, welcoming climate that Sana Rahim, a first-year MBA student, describes on UCLA's campus.

The day after the election, Rahim recalls how the dean of the business school sent students an email expressing her disappointment, but promised that UCLA would uphold its commitment to tolerance and diversity. "Usually, large institutions take a long time to formulate a response," Rahim says. "UCLA wasted no time putting its stake in the ground." The university currently employs two Muslim chaplains, and held a Hijab Day earlier this month to break down some of the Western stigma surrounding the garment.

In general, Rahim says she's pleased with how UCLA's administration has taken a stance against the immigration ban and the Trump administration's divisive rhetoric. Following the first executive order restricting immigration from Muslim-majority countries, UCLA signed onto a statement from the greater UC system stating, "We are deeply concerned by the recent executive order that restricts the ability of our students, faculty, staff, and other members of the UC community from certain countries from being able to enter or return to the United States." Like most universities, it was an earnest yet underwhelming response. Tonic reached out to the administration several times to follow up, but did not hear back.

As the only Muslim woman in her section of her program, Rahim says that the climate on campus in the wake of Trump's rhetoric and immigration ban has taken a toll. "What's hardest is [the] element of uncertainty you face when you talk to someone. You never know someone's political leaning. I'm always wondering, 'How did this person vote? How do they think of me?' That's been on my mind way more often than it used to be."

University of Minnesota
Salah Al Din Deban, a junior at the University of Minnesota and member of the campus Muslim Students Association, says just finding a place to pray here can be a big challenge. "We have expressed a need for more [prayer] spaces on campus," he says. "Right now, we have our Jummah prayers in the basement of a church."

Reverend Cody Nielsen, a religious leader on UNM's campus who works on multifaith policy, has been critical of the college's lack of support for Muslim students, especially since he says they have a strong presence on campus. "There is no reason why Muslims should have to go to Grace Lutheran Church on Friday afternoons to have Jummah prayers because there appears to be not enough space on campus. This is a farce, and the university could amend it simply by recognizing the need—and actually supporting it."

Deban says there is one space—the Al-Madinah Cultural Center—for Muslim students to find a sense of community, which has "led to many students embracing their identity and not hiding in the shadows." The center frequently hosts comedy nights and MSA events, and gives students the opportunity to volunteer.

Unfortunately, the Center hasn't been able to shield the students from two hate crimes since Deban's time on campus. One involved the spray painting of "ISIS" on a community bridge decorated by the MSA. Another involved the distribution of posters on campus calling the Students for Justice in Palestine group anti-semitic and allegedly linked to terrorist networks.

A representative from the University of Minnesota shared this statement condemning the incidents, and encouraging Muslim students to take advantage of the school's mental health and religious resources.

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