Berkeley universities

How the effect of anti-Muslim prejudices on campus is hurting student education

(RNS) – For Amna Omar, a recent graduate of San Diego State University, the worst moment came during her freshman year, when a class discussion about religion turned to Islam . A student singled out Omar, telling him that she was “downtrodden” because of her jilbab, or full cover. Far from worrying about her oppression, the student told Omar, she said, to “go home” because her outfit was unusual.

No one else objected to her treatment, she recalls. “The professor didn’t say anything. No student got involved either. It was like nothing had happened, ”said Omar. Omar chose not to tell the administrators about it, saying the incident, which was not the only one she had known or heard about, had made her feel “defeated”.

Despite the reputation of American universities as bastions of social justice consciousness, Muslim students on campus are frustrated by the acceptance of Islamophobia by school administrations and their fellow students. Experiences like Omar’s are compounded by constant slights such as a lack of space to pray, a lack of chaplains, and meal and examination times that do not meet the religious needs of Muslims.

Some students and their supporters are now pushing for recognition that anti-Muslim prejudice is as much of a problem as discrimination against other ethnic or racial groups and should be treated the same.

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The California branch of the Council of American Islamic Relations conducted a study during the 2019-2020 school year to understand the prevalence of Islamophobia on state campuses. After interviewing around 570 Muslim students at more than 60 higher education institutions, public and private universities, CAIR found that nearly 40% of Muslim students experience harassment or discrimination, because of their religious identity, from their peers, campus administrators and other staff.

Almost 72% of Muslim students surveyed said their schools had failed to make statements, accommodations, or consider the effects of important political issues impacting their community.

“Incidents of discrimination over the religious identity of Muslims on campus are ubiquitous and diversity initiatives often exclude them,” said Imam Bilal Ansari, assistant vice president of campus engagement at the office. diversity, equity and institutional inclusion of Williams College.

Indeed, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin, but the law is silent on religion. Muslims, however, do not belong to any ethnic group and have no recourse under the law. (The Trump administration, trying to tackle anti-Semitism on campus, has closed this gap for Jewish students by defining them as an ethnic group with common religious practices.)

In 2020, after students at the University of California at Berkeley protested a nuclear engineering professor’s links to Serbian nationalist groups with violent anti-Muslim backgrounds, the school responded that it was not. able to investigate because the professor’s activities did not fall within the scope of his discipline. “Questions or comments about a faculty’s views are best directed to the person in question,” said Dan Mogulof, assistant vice chancellor at Berkeley.

Hatem Bazian. Photo via UCB

Asl Syed, an official with the Berkeley Muslim Students’ Association who requested that only his last name be used, said that while the university often teamed up with Muslim students for “easier” elevators, l The administration takes no action against anti-Muslim harassment on topics like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The security and belonging of second Muslim students is threatened,” Asl Syed wrote in an email; “Admin cannot be found. “

Hatem Bazian, director of the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project at the Center for Race and Gender in Berkeley, told Religion News Service that “the Muslim is presumed guilty” on campus. “And as such, (they) experience verbal harassment, intimidation, even physical assault. But the assumption is that the Muslim is the instigator.

These attitudes have shown that such alienation can go beyond personal insults and can affect the education of minority students. A 2016 Department of Education report that documented the effect of discrimination on students of color found that efforts to welcome and support students of color have increased their graduation rates.

While Muslims were not the focus of this study, educators say similar programs are needed for Muslim students.

“Islamophobia and anti-Muslim prejudices on campus have had a negative effect on the quality of engagement of Muslim students with faculty and their peers inside and outside the classroom,” explained Shafiqa Ahmadi, co-director of the Center for Education, Identity and Social Justice at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.

Shafiqa Ahmadi.  Photo via USC

Shafiqa Ahmadi. Photo via USC

“In addition, they face anti-Muslim sentiments and Islamophobic acts,” Ahmadi added, “which impact their sense of belonging in their academic programs as well as their overall campus experience, including especially when Islamophobic incidents are not taken seriously and dealt with by professors and administrators. . “

Barriers to education, experts say, begin with the admissions process and continue throughout their transition to graduate schools and careers.

“The last one I heard (was) from a graduate student who was asked in an interview for a medical school what he thought about terrorists and the use of ‘Allahu Akbar'”, said Omar Tawil, Chaplain for Muslim Life at Arizona State. University. “Before the student could offer an answer, the interviewer went on to say that he only asked out of concern or hope that a potential medical student would be able to be true to the scientific truth about the beliefs. religious. ”

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Students and their advocates are dedicated to educating their teachers and peers, but say it’s up to administrators and their instructors to change the discourse about Muslims.

Sanaa Ansari, lawyer for civil rights group Muslim Advocates, said the Muslim Chaplaincy Association is actively working on awareness raising as a solution as a first step to alleviate these negative cases.

But Bazian believes that supporting Muslim students and educating non-Muslims is not enough. He wants universities to hire more Muslim professors and devote resources to solid research on Islamophobia and implicit prejudices. “There has to be a change of speech,” he said.

This article was produced as part of the RNS / IFYC Religious Journalism Fellowship Program.