Being Muslim on Campus

In the wake of terrorism, the burdens of Islamophobia fall especially hard on students.

Bebeto Matthews / AP

Even before the Paris Attacks, Muslims on American college campuses were often the targets of hatred or violence. In November, Virginia Tech responded to a threat that claimed “I will kill all Muslims,” and Islamophobic posters were hung at American University. And it’s only gotten worse since.

“People are a little more careful traveling alone, going out at night, walking to their cars,” Adeel Zeb, the Muslim Chaplain and director of Muslim life at Duke University, told me. And that reality plays an important role in the everyday lives of students.

Across the country right now, students are walking out of classes, demanding administrators’ resignations, and staging protests to draw attention to prejudice on campus—and to press for greater inclusion. Most of their focus, though, has been on race. Where does pushback against Islamophobia fit in?

Many Americans, including some presidential candidates, draw little distinction between the violent ideologies of extremist groups and mainstream Islam. As a result, there is often an anti-Muslim backlash in the wake of attacks, despite overwhelming condemnation of terrorism and the use of the Quran to justify mass murder among practicing Muslims. As my colleague Conor Friedersdorf points out:

Hate crimes against American Muslims spiked tremendously after 9/11. Hate crimes against Sikhs increased too. In Britain, hate crimes soared after the London bombing. And after the attack on Charlie Hebdo earlier this year, The Independent reported that “twenty-six mosques around France have been subject to attack by firebombs, gunfire, pig heads, and grenades as Muslims are targeted with violence.

The university atmosphere acts as a social laboratory of sorts, a model written into the mission statements and strategic plans of many schools. That’s why, like many other cultural groups, Muslim organizations use resources—in the form of student activity fees or membership dues—to stimulate intercultural interaction. Zeb explained that Muslims are among the most active participants in the university’s interfaith community. A principal goal is to foster understanding and respect among people who may have never been exposed to significantly different beliefs and practices.

For Muslim groups, the uncomfortable reality is that the starting point is often showing that their values are rooted in love and kindness—that they’re “not terrorists.”

“I think it’s unfortunate that, because of international events, a lot of young Muslim students are looked upon to answer questions about these types of things—as if they have a Ph.D. and a 20-year tenure of answering these questions—when they’re simply just trying to get past organic chemistry so they can get into medical school,” Zeb said. “They happen to be Muslim and perhaps a terrorist happened to be Muslim as well, so there’s somehow a correlation, and an onus to condemn the terrorism—or you’re assumed to be complicit in it and I don’t think that’s very fair.

Fatima Koli, a student at Columbia University, told me that this burden puts her in a difficult place. “No matter what we do, we are always left in the weaker position, always reacting instead of paving our own way,” said Koli, who is also the president of the Muslim Student Association at Columbia. “Why do we always have to wait to have our hurt acknowledged? Why do we always have to step back and accept that our lives aren’t valued in this world?” she asked me. “Muslims are always at the back of the line for that compassion.”

Koli rejects the notion that she bears a personal responsibility to take an active role in combatting prejudice against peaceful Muslims. “While I highly respect individuals and organizations that do the work of dispelling misconceptions, I can’t do that kind of work,” she said. “We need to cultivate our own spaces and have productive and meaningful discussions within our own community, and the work of educating the ignorant can take a step back for once.”

But those who do choose to take an active role on that front say that it usually just takes a simple, positive interaction. “Until a Muslim from within the community speaks up to reaffirm these beliefs, many of my student peers are not as confident about explaining such misconceptions of Islam to others or confronting those who are perpetrating hateful speech,” Afrad Khan, a student at New York University, told me.

The most violent instances of backlash haunt many Muslims. Zeb referenced the murders at the University of North Carolina in February during our conversation; Koli recalled a woman in London who was pushed into the path of a train. But Islamophobia manifests in nonviolent ways, too. Yik Yak on campuses is often inundated with vitriolic anti-Muslim slurs, and xenophobic distaste commonly manifests in subtle ways—as microaggressions against “visibly Muslim” people.

And sometimes, the hostility comes from professors. Khan told the stories of a student who heard a professor say in class that the Prophet Muhammad hallucinated on fumes in a cave—causing him to believe he had talked to God—and of another student who was told that she is “too pretty to be wearing a hijab.”

An exceptional case—where Islamophobia and campus free-speech concerns are colliding—has been unfolding this year at my alma mater. In January, after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a Vanderbilt law professor, Carol Swain, wrote that “Islam is not like other religions in the United States, that it poses an absolute danger to us and our children” in an op-ed for the Tennessean, adding that “Islam is not just another religion to be accorded the respect given to Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Baha’i and other world religions.” Student activists of all faiths (and of none) denounced Swain’s words and organized protests and other events to push back. When some activists began to call for Swain to be sanctioned or fired, a debate about free-expression and safe spaces ensued (to much the same tune as the recent conflicts at Yale and Mizzou). Last week, a student-drafted petition to suspend Swain reached over 1500 signatures. The chancellor, Nicholas Zeppos, released a statement pointing out that Swain’s views are not consistent with the university’s, but affirming the school’s commitment to free speech and academic freedom.

Days later, terrorists struck Paris, and Swain took to Facebook to reaffirm her stance: “I rest my case,” she posted, later adding:

I am astonished by the timing. My “controversial” essay about Islam was published after the Charlie Hebdo attack. The second massive attack in Paris occurs in the midst of the turmoil at Vanderbilt which accuses me of hate speech for an essay published in January that pointed out a problem with Islam. It's Ironic that some people see Christianity as a threat. I am afraid we have made it easier for terrorists to attack us.

It’s an exceptional circumstance; not many tenured professors around the country espouse views (at least not publicly) that marginalize an entire faith. But the response Swain provoked at Vanderbilt illustrates that student activism doesn’t stop at Black Lives Matter, and that battling Islamophobia is part of the growing demand for inclusivity at colleges and universities.

That movement for inclusivity, though gaining steam, faces uncertain prospects. At the tensest moments—when genuine breakthroughs seem possible—the core demands made by activists have often been overshadowed by concerns about the methods they employ. In the short term, the headlines about intolerant activists and the suppression of free speech may garner the most attention. But those activists are trying to expose deep-seated prejudices that matter far more in the long term. And for Muslim students, that task now seems particularly urgent.