Why Muslim college students need more institutional support

August 11, 2020

A new book examines the legal and cultural issues Muslim students face

By Ross Brenneman

Image licensed under Flickr Creative Commons via user Adrian Michael.

One week after his inauguration as president of the United States, Donald Trump signed what would come to be known as the first Muslim Ban. The executive order, signed on Jan. 27, 2017, temporarily banned entry into the country for foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries, as well as all Syrian refugees.

Following a series of lawsuits from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, Muslim Ban 1.0 turned into Muslim Ban 2.0, which turned into Muslim Ban 3.0, which is still in effect today.

Experts say those bans, plus related anti-Muslim rhetoric, have exacerbated the anti-Muslim tensions that grew out of September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, thereby stifling the expression of Muslim identities on college campuses.

“If students aren’t able to visibly identify as Muslim, they probably don’t have a welcoming environment,” says Shafiqa Ahmadi, a professor of clinical education at USC Rossier. “They’re not revealing their identities because they know they’ll be met with hostility.”

Ahmadi co-directs the USC Rossier Center for Education, Identity and Social Justice with Associate Professor Darnell Cole, and both say that college administrators need to work on understanding the experiences of Muslim students on campus, and supporting those students.

In a new book they co-edited, Islamophobia in Higher Education, Ahmadi and Cole examine the legal and socio-cultural issues that face Muslim college students, with chapters from Muslim legal experts as well as fellow USC Rossier scholars.

“In a lot of cases, institutions don’t even know who identifies as Muslim,” Cole says. “They find proxies, like how many students join a particular student group.”

With poor on-campus supports, they argue, Muslim students often bear the burden of navigating hostile state actions like the Muslim Bans, or Trump’s now-rescinded move to revoke F-1 visas for international students who are only taking online classes this fall.

Marginalization of Muslim students takes other forms as well. Various recent campus climate reports, such as a 2017 study of the University of Chicago, have shown that Muslim students are most likely to report non-physical discrimination on campus; many students don’t want to openly identify as Muslim for fear of harassment or other negative consequences.

Alex Atashi, a co-author on one of the book’s chapters, points to those reports as well as anti-Muslim rhetoric from the Trump Administration and a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes as indicators that more supports are needed for Muslim students.

“Though these issues are not new,” she says, “there has been an ongoing sense of urgency.”

However, colleges do appear to be getting better at addressing a lack of halal food options or creating exam accommodations for religious holidays. Ahmadi notes that colleges have a legal, moral and ethical obligation to provide such services.

Cole points out an economic rationale, as well: “In most cases, if you provide better services and opportunities for Muslim students, you’re probably providing better services and opportunities for all students,” he says. “It’s not just vegetarians who benefited from colleges providing more vegetarian options on campus.”

Intersecting identities

Islamophobia in Higher Education also examines the Muslim student experience through the lens of students whose identities go beyond being “just Muslim,” such as Black or LGBT+ Muslims.

This spring’s Black Lives Matters protests provide a topical reason to understand these intersecting identities, says Liane Hypolite PhD ’20, a book contributor.

“There is a history of political engagement by Black Muslims contributing to activist movements that center Black people,” Hypolite says. “That’s extremely valuable to the confidence that so many of us feel today.”

For PhD student Mabel Sanchez, there are interesting contrasts to be teased out in these intersecting identities, such as Muslims who have Latin American heritage.

“Most people will not think about the intersection of these two communities,” she says, “because we’re exposed to these communities as monolithic communities that may not have much in common.”

While there hasn’t been a vast amount of research on such topics, Ahmadi says it’s important to study these identities not just to serve Muslim students, but for the Muslim community to better understand itself.

“As Muslims we often say we don’t see race—Allah sees all of us as who we are,” she says. “But there’s a lot of racism and bias within the Muslim community as well.”

As for administrators who might not see the need to dwell on their institution’s support of Muslim students, Cole says that it’s not the quantity that matters.

“If you admit students, the administrators and faculty and staff should care for those students,” he says. “You don’t need a critical mass to care for the students you admit.”

Islamophobia in Higher Education features chapters from Abiya Ahmed, Parwana Anwar, Alex Atashi, Zulaikha Aziz, Cassie Garcia, Bo Lee, Marwa Rifahie and Sama Shah, in addition to Ahmadi, Cole, Hypolite and Sanchez.

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