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Support for Muslim College Students Finding Community & Maintaining Your Religious Identity in School

It can be extremely difficult being a Muslim college student in America. In many cases, all the typical college student knows about Islam or Muslim individuals is what they have seen on the television or heard on the radio – and in today’s political climate, it’s entirely possible that what they have heard has a negative slant. This can lead to an unconscious bias at best, and at worst, outright discrimination against Muslim students who have done nothing offensive to anyone.

Meet the Expert

Omar Allam President of the Muslim Students’ Association at Michigan State University

Written by:

This guide provides a wealth of information and resources for Muslim college students and the family, friends and larger community that support them. For others, it provides an in-depth look at what Muslim students might go through during their day-to-day lives on college campuses all across the nation – and perhaps foster more awareness, understanding and compassion among those who want to make the world a better place for everyone, no matter their beliefs.

By the Numbers: Muslim Student Experience in College

What’s it really like to be a Muslim college student today? There are many stories out there. And there are also a few cold, hard facts, like these:

Schools, colleges and universities were the most common location where anti-Muslim bias incidents took place in California in 2016 (second only to private homes). (Source)

Anti-Muslim bias has increased dramatically. In California alone, incidents triggered by ant-Muslim bias rose by 57 percent between 2014 and 2016; hate crimes targeting Muslims rose by a whopping 584 percent during that same period. (Source)

Muslims in America make up only one percent of the entire U.S. population; in some areas, they make up much less than one percent. (Source)

61 percent of Muslims report experiencing religious discrimination. (Source)

75 percent of Muslim women report experiencing racial discrimination (as opposed to 40 percent of women in the general public). (Source)

Muslim Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1999) are about as likely to have a bachelor’s degree as Millennials in the general public. (Source)

Challenges Muslim Students Face

Muslim students face unique challenges, especially in our current political climate. Some of these challenges can be overcome with a little give-and-take with enlightened individuals; other challenges aren’t so easily resolved. Here is a sampling of the most important issues facing Muslim college students on campus.

Bullying. Unfortunately, many kids in middle school and high school experience bullying – but Muslim students are twice as likely to experience bullying as other students. The problem became worse after the most recent presidential campaign, when an overwhelming 90% of educators saw a negative impact on students following the 2016 election. This bullying doesn’t stop with high school graduation; many college students also experience it, and in a disturbing turn of events, so do many teachers.

Racial discrimination. Discrimination among those of Muslim faith is on the rise. A 2016 report by University of Michigan’s Islamophobia Working Group found that 40 percent of Americans view Muslims in an unfavorable light, while 43 percent of Muslim Americans have experienced racial profiling, hostility or attacks. Discrimination might become more pronounced in the wake of certain events, such as an anti-Muslim speaker on campus.

Religious discrimination. Many Muslim students have encountered forms of religious discrimination, from someone making fun of their hijab or prayer rug to malicious interruptions of prayer. They might also be turned down for jobs because of the way they dress, penalized for taking time out of class to pray, or otherwise treated differently than someone else because of their following of Islam.

Hate groups on campus. A surge of anti-Muslim hate groups in recent years has emboldened many who trade in racism and bigotry. That often comes to the fore in violent ways; according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were a whopping 867 bias-related incidents in the first 10 days after the election of Donald Trump, with over 300 of those incidents targeting Muslims. The number of anti-Muslim hate groups has almost tripled, from 34 in 2015 to 101 in 2016. Unfortunately, many of these groups are actively recruiting on college campuses. This can make Muslim students feel quite unsafe, misunderstood and vilified – even though they have obviously done nothing wrong.

Maintaining their Islamic identity. From praying multiple times each day to wearing the traditional headscarf to avoiding certain foods, there are many outward signs of religious identity that sometimes makes Muslim students stand out. This feeling of being “out of place” can sometimes tempt a student to pull away from the very things that define their Islamic identity. Maintaining the signs and symbols of their faith can be especially challenging during the college years.

Negative portrayals in the media. It can be very difficult, disheartening and disappointing to see an entire group of people derided in public by politicians, news pundits and the like, but it happens to Muslims in America every single day. These negative portrayals often flavor a person’s outlook, so that when they do meet someone who is Muslim, their immediate response is to be wary at best – and at worst, openly hostile. These portrayals can sometimes (and quite understandably) lead Muslims to avoid contact with non-Muslims.

Uncomfortable (even if well-meaning) questions. The best way to combat disinformation is with true information, which can come when a Muslim is open and willing to answer questions about their religion, lifestyle and more. Fortunately, many curious students might be very willing to ask those questions and seek understanding. However, those questions might be somewhat offensive or uncomfortable, especially at first. It’s important for Muslim students to focus on the end result – the spreading of good information to those who look for honest understanding – rather than getting too caught up in the awkward way these questions are sometimes asked.

Issues with religious accommodations. Some Muslim students, in following the five tenets of Islam, will need to step away from class briefly for the sake of their religion. For example, many will want to pray five times each day. These prayers are supposed to be performed at certain times and in a particular way. In most cases, an understanding professor can help ensure students have a break from class to practice this important part of their religion, but others might take issue with religious accommodations. This is why it’s very important for students to understand exactly what their rights are on campus and how they can be sure those rights are enforced.

Not enough privacy. There might be times when Muslim students prefer more privacy than the typical college experience offers. For example, a Muslim woman might prefer to live in a dorm with only women – and when men are allowed in that dorm, she might feel as though she has to wear her headscarf, or hijab, even in what is supposed to be “her” space. It can also be a challenge to find a place to pray, assuming the school does not provide a nondenominational chapel.

Know Your Rights:

Though sometimes being a Muslim student can be challenging, it’s important to remember that you have certain rights – and no one has the right to take those away from you. It’s important to know your rights before you face anti-Muslim discrimination; that knowledge can help you figure out what to do. To learn more, explore this Know Your Rights resource from the ACLU, and study this information from the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

Finding Support On- and Off-Campus

Support is vitally important for any college student. Support becomes even more important when a person is faced with the possibility of discrimination. Support groups are there to assist students who are dealing with harassment, struggling with their religious identity or simply looking for a community of open, welcoming individuals. Here are some of the great places Muslim students can take advantage of on campus and off.

On-Campus Support

Muslim Students Associations

MSA National has been on campuses for over 50 years. Today there are numerous chapters on college campuses that provide practical resources, leadership training and more. Students can turn to their local MSA for information on everything from mosques to counseling to where to find Halal meals.

Muslim students can find those of like-minds – and those who are strong advocates – at a variety of student advocacy groups. These groups serve as a way for students to learn more about their rights, feel more comfortable on campus, find a sense of community and do their part to make the world a better place. Muslim ARC is an example of an advocacy group that is active on college campuses across the nation.

Many colleges and universities recognize the wide diversity of the student population, and thus offer centers designed to accommodate those with specific religious needs. In addition, many schools provide spaces where those of different religions can find common ground. A good example of this is the Center for Spirituality at Nazareth College, where students of all different religious backgrounds are encouraged to explore resources that introduce them to new faiths while helping strengthen their own. Another is the Center for Spirituality and Healing at University of Minnesota, which focuses on the well-being of students and the social change needed on campuses and beyond.

Those who join these Greek organizations can find strong support and comfort from those around them. Fraternities and sororities that focus strongly on Muslim life – such as Mu Delta Alpha sorority on the campus of UT Austin, or Alpha Lambda Mu, a fraternity now present on seven campuses across the nation. Though the groups have fun in a variety of ways, they stick with some important rules – such as no co-ed parties, no drinking and no drug use

Many schools provide chaplains to assist those of certain religions. These chaplains are there to help students find prayer spaces, engage them in the greater religious community and serve as counselors away from home. A few good examples of schools doing this well include Mount Holyoke College, which offers a welcoming atmosphere to many groups of faith, and DePaul University, where Muslim students – and those of many other faiths – can find a thriving community headed by dedicated chaplains.

Many colleges and universities want everyone to feel comfortable while practicing their religion; that’s why they have created non-denominational chapels, temples and other places of open worship. These allow students to pray, meditate, and otherwise enjoy their religious observations in a safe space. Some schools offer spaces specifically for certain religions, including Muslim students. Students can turn to their Muslim Students Association for help in finding specific prayer spaces, such as those for Musalla or Jumu’ah, as these might require spaces that aren’t typically found on a college campus.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 provide the right for all students, of all faiths, to be free from discrimination on school campuses. Students should learn exactly what their rights are, and don’t hesitate to turn to the Title VI and Title IX coordinators or offices on campus if those rights are violated in any way.

Students who are struggling with managing their religious identity, dealing with the fallout from today’s political climate or simply having troubles with classes or being away from home can take advantage of counseling services. In some cases, the counseling is more specialized; for instance, George Washington University partnered with the Muslim Student’s Association to create counseling initiatives to help students cope with the harmful images and acts directed toward Muslims. To find these services on your campus, start with the student health center.

Off-Campus Support

Local Mosques

For students of Islam, finding a local mosque is a vitally important part of the college experience. A mosque is much more than a place of worship; it is a place where the Muslim community gathers for education in Islam, enjoys religious festivals and gatherings, sits down for a meal together and otherwise creates a strong sense of togetherness – something that can be vitally important for students who are far from home.

Often located in the same area as a mosque, Islamic Centers are wonderful places for Muslim students to meet. Many Islamic Centers offer outreach programs that help educate those in the local community about what Islam really is, what Muslims really believe, and combat the negative media reports that might give individuals a false sense of Muslim life. Some, like the Islamic Center of Maine, work closely with local colleges and universities to provide awareness about Muslims on campus.

Students who find themselves dealing with harassment, discrimination and even hate crimes will need the help of powerful advocacy groups. These groups provide a wealth of information and help students understand what their rights are. They might also be able to help students report crimes, spot serious issues before they grow into larger problems and connect them with local resources. A few of these advocacy groups include the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Muslim Advocates, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and the Inner-City Muslim Action Network.

College life can take a toll on anyone, especially if they are far from home for the first time. But for Muslim students, there might be discrimination and outright bullying thrown into the mix, which can make those college years even more difficult. Mental health services that go beyond what the campus can provide – specifically, those that focus on the unique issues Muslim student face – can be extremely helpful. A few great options include the Institute for Muslim Mental Health, Stones to Bridges and the Amala Muslim Youth Hopeline.

How Colleges and Peers Can Support Muslim Students

There has been a spike in hate crimes and violence against Muslims in the last few years; by 2016, these crimes hit a level not seen since 2001.There has never been a more important time for universities, peers and educators to help make Muslim college students feel welcome on their campus. By taking a stand against Islamophobia and supporting Muslim students in every way possible, college campuses can become safe havens. Here are a few ways universities can support and welcome, fellow students can advocate, and teachers and administration can help ensure the safety and well-being of Muslim students.

Demonstrations and Protests: What’s legal and what’s not?

In a time when numerous hate groups are trying to get their message out across college campuses and elsewhere, the free speech afforded to all Americans by the First Amendment has become a focus point. It’s important to remember that colleges and universities that receive federal funds must abide by certain rules.

One of those rules of free speech is that they cannot prohibit someone from using an event space, such as a student organization inviting a public speaker, as long as that event space is open to everyone. For example, if a Christian organization can invite a religious speaker, the school has to also let a white nationalist group invite a controversial speaker – even if that speaker says things that appear to promote violence. However, the right to protest against a particular speaker is also protected.

On the other hand, speech does not have constitutional protection if it targets an individual for harm, or creates a true threat of physical violence against someone. In that same vein, offensive symbols are protected by free speech, but the use of such symbols to nonverbally threaten an individual is not protected. For more information on what is legal in terms of demonstrations, protests and more, visit this informative page from the ACLU.

Advice for Muslim Students in College

Omar Allam is the President of the Muslim Students’ Association at Michigan State University.

Q. When selecting a college to attend, what in particular should Muslim students look for to help ensure they will be welcomed? 

A. I think the main thing is a prominent Muslim community. Being a practicing Muslim in an environment where there may not be too many Muslims to support you can be very difficult. People tend to naturally gravitate towards those that are similar to them, so if there isn’t a strong community there to gravitate towards, you may naturally not feel like you fit in.

Another reason having a significant Muslim population is important is because areas that are more exposed to Islamic culture will naturally be less likely to treat you with any kind of prejudice when they realize you’re Muslim. Michigan for example has one of the largest Muslim populations in all of the US, so what you see is a strong Muslim community at the major universities, and also an acceptance and openness from non-Muslims as well. 

Q. How can a Muslim student go about finding a strong community on campus and in the surrounding area?

A. I think a lot of that research should come before officially enrolling to a school, just because if that’s something that is at the top of your priority list, some universities may be more suitable for you than others. The first thing I’d say is definitely reach out to Muslim student organizations on campus, particularly MSA’s (Muslim Student Association). Most larger universities all across the US have an operating MSA. 

Another piece of advice I’d give is to reach out to a local mosque. Getting involved with the mosque near your campus is one of the absolute best ways to meet people that not only go to your university, but also many locals that live and work and have families around the area. 

Q. What are some ways non-Muslim students can make their new Muslim peers feel welcome on campus?

A. I’d say the biggest thing is simply being accepting of differing religions and ideologies in general! Making the conscious effort to learn about what Muslims believe, what they practice, etc. is a very big step in accomplishing that because a lot of the preconceived notions people unfortunately may have are put to rest once they have a real understanding of the religion. Once it comes down to it though, we don’t want anything special. All it takes for us to feel welcome is the same as what it would take for any non-Muslim to feel welcome; friendliness and acceptance from the community, and an equal opportunity to have our voice heard as everyone else. 

Q. Unfortunately, there might be times Muslim students feel unsafe on their campus. If this happens, what can they do to find support, comfort and help? 

A. Thankfully, I personally have never felt unsafe, nor is it anything that I’ve seen as a significant problem for the Muslims on our campus. That being said, unfortunately not everywhere is as accepting. In cases where Muslim students do feel this way, I’d recommend to again, try to surround yourself with a community, get in contact with the MSA or the local mosque, and notify the officials of any incidents that may occur and they should be able to help. 

Q. Any advice you’d like to offer to Muslim students as they embark on their college journey? 

A. The one thing I’d say is don’t ever underestimate the effect that good company can have on you. There is strength in numbers in everything that you try to accomplish, and sometimes college campus environments can be a bit of a challenge for practicing Muslim students. But it’s easier to go through and grow from and learn from when you’re working towards doing it as a part of a community.

Additional Student Resources

Yes, it is entirely possible to maintain a strong religious identity and succeed in school at the same time. It’s also possible to educate others and spread peace where there was once hatred and misunderstanding. Here are some resources to help Muslim students do just that.

  • 100 Questions and Answers about Muslim Americans. This book by Michigan State University’s journalism students covers everything you ever wanted to know about Muslim Americans, including holidays, traditions, culture, politics and more.

  • Faith Guides for Higher Education: Islam. This in-depth guide provides teachers with the information they need about Islam.

  • Global Fund for Women. Using the hashtag #MuslimaMeans, this initiative is all about sharing the voices, art and viewpoint of Muslim women, particularly in a time of increasing hate.

  • Islam Basics. This online library of resources on Islam is designed for both Muslim readers and those who are entirely new to the religion.

  • Islam House. Offered in 115 languages and counting, this is considered the “largest and most authentic free reference” to introduce Islam to the world.

  • Islam Tomorrow. This is a free resource of books meant to encourage education and understanding of Islam.

  • Islamic Academy. Designed for Muslims but also friendly to those who simply want to learn more about Islam, the Islamic Academy provides a wealth of information.

  • Islamic Finder. Simply enter a zip code to find a wealth of information on mosques, Islamic Centers, Ramadan features and more in the surrounding area.

  • Islamic Networks Group. This non-profit organization offers diversity seminars, youth programs, interfaith programs, curriculum for educators and much more, all with the goal of cultural literacy and mutual respect.

  • MPower Change. This grassroots organization joins the fight for peace and understanding with political action, peaceful protest and the like.

  • Muslim Student Needs on U.S. Campuses.This article from the Association of International Educators offers an overview of what Muslim students need to know when coming to the U.S. to study.

  • StopBullying.gov.This government website helps students find immediate help in the face of bullying, harassment and discrimination.

  • Sultan.org. This is an excellent starting point for those who want to learn all about Islam and what it means to be Muslim.

  • True Islam.Conceived as a way to battle hatred in our world today, this site offers information on Islam, as well as the opportunity to meet and speak with a Muslim in your area.

  • Unity Products Foundation. This unique non-profit organization aims to counter bigotry and hate through the media. UPF uses the mediums of online viewing, television and theatrical releases to tell important stories about those of various faiths, including Muslims.