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Question of the Week: Being a Muslim (or Anything Else) on Campus

  • Jessica Stahl

Many of our bloggers have brought up that one of the things they’ve been most pleased to find in America is diversity – people from all over the world and people with all sorts of beliefs and preferences. But Martin Luther King Day yesterday serves as a reminder that America has a difficult history, and ongoing struggles, when it comes to accepting people from different backgrounds.

This week we’ll be looking at prejudice and tolerance on American campuses - what prejudices you might encounter and which ones you’ve heard about that aren’t true at all. What have you heard about how different races, religions and ethnicities are treated in America? Would you be worried about how U.S. students would accept you?

We’ll look in particular at what it’s like to come to America as a Muslim. I recently received the following message from a student on Facebook:
I really want to study abroad, to America of course... Actually, my boss would probably pick Aussie for us as most of them had studied there, but I need to go further than that :)

But, the "jilbab" that I wear quite worry me, I hope American people wouldn't bother it at all for a moeslim girl like me study and live in their neighbourhood :)

I wanted to write back and say, “Of course it wouldn’t be a problem.” But the reality is probably more complicated.

On the one hand, many U.S. colleges are taking steps to make Muslim students feel more comfortable on campus. Earlier this year we shared a story about how George Mason University in Virginia has set up special facilities to accommodate Islamic daily prayers. In December we talked about how many campuses (like UMass and MSU) held celebrations for Eid al-Adha.

It’s not difficult to find examples of Muslim students who are completely integrated into campus life. In fact, one of the top college basketball players right now is Arsalan Kazemi, an Iranian who studies at Rice University. And many college campuses all over the country have active Muslim Student Associations to support Islamic students on campus. This past weekend, the Muslim Student Association west coast division held a conference for its member organizations – its 13th annual conference.

However, there can be no doubt that being a Muslim in America is not always easy, and that there are Americans who may react negatively to a woman wearing hijab or a man kneeling down for daily prayers.

Tellingly, comedian Dean Obeidallah, whose father is Palestinian, wrote for CNN about the shooter who injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed 6 others:
But if you are Muslim or of Arab heritage, your reaction to the news of the arrest was likely: "Please don't let him be Arab ... please don't let him be Muslim." Believe me, that was my reaction.

let's be brutally honest. If the suspect's name wasn't Jared but was Jamil or Mahmud instead, America's reaction might have been different. What if a Muslim-American had made anti-government statements and shot a U.S. congresswoman at a political event?

There are reasons to ask questions about how accepting U.S. colleges and college students are of Muslims, particularly Muslims who look Arab or have an accent. So, this week I’ll be talking to a few Muslim students here in the U.S. so they can tell you honestly, from their perspective and their experiences, what it’s like to study in America as a Muslim.

What questions do you have for these students about life as a Muslim at a U.S. college? What else do you want to know about prejudices and how you might be accepted if you studied in the U.S.?