Sadaf Jaffer recently completed two terms in Montgomery Township, N.J., serving as the first Muslim mayor in the United States. Now a postdoctoral research associate at the Institute for International and Regional Studies at Princeton University, on Sept. 11, 2001, she was a freshman at Georgetown University, where she could see the Pentagon burning from campus. “I remember just a sense of fear, certainly among the Muslim students, about not wanting to be alone around campus,” she told USA Today.
Just two years before, in 1999, Imam Yahya Hendi became the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University — the first full-time Muslim chaplain at any college in the United States — where he says the “intensity and magnitude” of the job picked up after Sept. 11. “Sometimes you go home in tears,” he said in 2017, when he was still guiding Georgetown students facing discrimination for being Muslim almost two decades later. “Sometimes it’s been very exhausting.” Muslim students, in fact, encountered a spike in anti-Muslim sentiment and hate crimes on campus during the Trump administration, as President Trump signed what would become known as the Muslim ban and attempted to revoke F-1 visas for international students taking online classes in fall 2020.
In the 20 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, which Americans memorialized just last month, strides have been made to make college campuses more inclusive to minoritized students. However, research suggests that higher education institutions have not done enough to address the distinct challenges that Muslim students continue to face. Broad efforts to promote diversity and inclusion have simply not been adequate. Intentional and focused initiatives on behalf of Muslim students are necessary to ensure they enjoy a safe and supportive campus experience.
Unsafe and Unsupported
Recent research shows that too often today the opposite is happening — many Muslim students instead continue to feel quite unsafe on their campuses. And with good reason: between 2009 and 2017, the number of on-campus religion-based hate crimes — mostly involving Jewish and Muslim targets — nearly doubled, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
In California alone, 40 percent of Muslim college students reported facing harassment or discrimination during the 2019-20 academic year. MSA West, a nonprofit serving 3,000 Muslim students across 30 California campuses, discovered that nearly four out of five women (79 percent) whom they surveyed in 2019 reported experiencing religious discrimination on campus, as did 63 percent of male participants. The survey also found that 38 percent reported experiencing abuse from peers, 15 percent from campus professors and 11 percent from campus administrators.
In a nationwide study, the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS), nearly a quarter of Muslim students (23 percent) reported that faculty and staff members don’t accommodate their religious holidays. Similarly, the University of Southern California’s Center for Education, Identity and Social Justice surveyed Muslim students in 2017 and found that while participants reported receiving support from specific individuals on campus, most said they didn’t feel that their campus or administration collectively did much to support them.
One participant of that study observed, “When it comes to policies surrounding religious accommodation, the [administration] might feel that they’re all for it, but the onus is on students to make that actually happen. They aren’t actively at the forefront trying to push for these types of policies.” Meanwhile, as other survey respondents noted, Muslim students have felt tokenized by institutions’ efforts to show them off in campus marketing to demonstrate that their campus is diverse, especially given the lack of support they perceive.
Diversity and Inclusion Are Not Enough
Muslim students shouldn’t be saddled with the sole responsibility of advocating for their own safety and inclusion on campus. At the same time, administrators and faculty should not assume that diversity and inclusion programs alone will cover the distinct challenges that Muslim students face on campus. That’s because many of those programs don’t touch religious diversity and inclusion at all. The most recent IDEALS survey discovered that fewer than half of students across all institutional types, including just 40 percent of public university students, reported exposure to religious diversity education at orientation or other required campus events.
And even when any campuswide efforts to recognize and celebrate religious diversity are offered, while they may be somewhat helpful, they are far from enough. Researchers and experts — many of them Muslim — recommend developing other, more targeted, interventions to address anti-Muslim attitudes on campuses.
What might some of those interventions be? How can colleges and universities better support Muslim students and combat Islamophobia?
In 2017, the Center for Education, Identity and Social Justice hosted the Summit on (De)Institutionalizing Islamophobia on College Campuses. More than 90 faculty, staff and students from 20 different higher education institutions and organizations attended or presented at the event.
Attendees were asked to draft a commitment to combat at least one aspect of Islamophobia at their respective institution or organization. Commitment themes included:
- Dedicating space, staff and resources to supporting Muslim students;
- Setting a campus definition and acknowledgment of Islamophobia; and
- Raising the visibility of Muslim students through data and programming.
The center has also recommended that institutions “invest and create a centralized mechanism to identify discrimination and hate directed at Muslim college students, investigate incidents of hate and discrimination, and follow through with actionable steps to address and resolve the issue.”
Syracuse University, in conjunction with Muslim Student Life and Chaplain Amir Duric, began offering incoming Muslim students a “pre-welcome” mentoring program in August 2021. The program provides students with an opportunity to meet new people, receive guidance from peers, identify resources on campus and explore the campus before classes begin. Shenandoah University hired its first Muslim chaplain in 2019 to address Muslim students’ spiritual needs as well as create safe spaces where they can pray and discuss their concerns.
At Georgia Institute of Technology, biomedical engineering major Eeman Uddin was sought out by a professor, who asked if she and her classmates needed a comfortable space to pray. “He offered an empty room and told us he would vouch for us if we had any unfortunate run-ins,” she said, adding, “Even one teacher who recognizes me for who I am instead of solely my academic performance makes a drastic difference in the way I participate and show up in class and among my peers.”
Based on my research on the topic, I also suggest that faculty and staff members should consider becoming a mentor for a Muslim student. My organization, Springtide Research Institute, recently discovered that a quarter of young Muslims say their lives lack meaning and purpose, a notably higher proportion than their Jewish (14 percent) and Christian peers (13 percent). However, even just one adult mentor — whether it be a professor, religious leader, even employer — can significantly improve a young Muslim’s confidence that their life indeed has meaning and purpose.
Despite the initial rush of unity after Sept. 11, division and polarization now take its place in America. Part of that is manifested as a continuation and even heightening of anti-Muslim bias. But Muslim students need and deserve the support of higher education institutions. The IDEALS survey discovered that out of all the religious and nonreligious groups in the study, Muslim students leave college the most committed to making positive contributions to society — which includes having goodwill toward people of other beliefs and a willingness to work across differences to solve common problems.
American society needs more Muslim college graduates and should make them feel welcome and included here. Whatever investment that we in higher education can make to support their ability to flourish on our campuses will be well worth it.