Over the past three years, I have become increasingly interested in how the expression of religious identity is managed in different national and institutional contexts, and particularly the expression of Muslim faith in higher education.
For my Fulbright-Schuman research project, I wanted to understand how national debates and policies regarding the place of Muslims in American society interacted with the representation of Islam in American university life. I investigated Obama’s policies regarding religious diversity, Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stance, and the reaction to Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ at GMU. A fourth dimension of the research focused on how students and staff experienced religious and cultural diversity on campus and what type of policies had been put in place by university management structures.
Ethnic diversity has become a permanent feature of contemporary Western societies, with religion – Islam – being increasingly perceived as a form of social identity for non-majority ethnic groups. In Western Europe, I’d argue that there’s been a renewed cultural and political anxiety regarding the perceived threat of Islam to a distinctively European secular consensus.
This consensus presents the following characteristics, which I think are particularly strong in universities:
1- an individualized view of religion, where spiritual beliefs are a matter of individual thought and conscience
2- the socio-political expectation that religion should be kept separate from law and politics
3- the predominance of cultural and communal symbols linked to the traditional majority religion: i.e. the Christian faith.
The expression of a strong Muslim identity could potentially undermine this secular consensus in higher education, where matters of faith are usually confined to the private sphere. Of course, the revival of religion is not confined to Islam, but it’s the Muslim faith that I’d argue is the most visible on modern campuses today.
My research addressed the following question: how do universities respond to the expression of the Muslim faith in their midst at a time of growing social and political anxiety regarding Islam, especially in Western Europe?
I’d suggest that in the United States, fear of Islam and Muslims is less predominant than in Western Europe for three main reasons. First, the influence of religion is exceptionally strong in America. Religion is traditionally seen as a vector of social integration in the American melting pot. Second, Muslims remain a tiny minority in the US: there are 3.35 million Muslims of all ages in the U.S., which represents about 1% of the U.S. population. The percentage of Muslims in European countries is much higher than in the US: in 2010, Muslims represented 7.5% of the population in France, 4.8% in the UK, 5.8% in Germany, 3.7% in Italy, 4.1% in Denmark, 5.4% in Austria and 4.6% in Sweden. Third, they tend to be better integrated than their European counterparts mainly because religion is seen in a more positive light in America than in Western Europe.
Indeed, there’s usually a great deal of organizational and political space for the expression of the Muslim faith. This also applies to universities, where Muslims represent between 1 and 1.4% of the student population. The Muslim Student Association (MSA) has been a prominent advocate for the official recognition of Muslim students’ specific needs, especially in terms of worship and dietary requirements. Universities have been generally responsive to these demands.
However, it would be misguided to conclude that it’s been all plain sailing for American Muslims. Just like in Western Europe, the fear of Islam is alive and well in the US, especially after 9/11. Hate crimes against Muslims rose sharply in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, including on American campuses. More recently, there’s been a spike in both Antisemitism and Islamophobia on American campuses, as well as hate crimes against African American students, prompting colleges to enhance diversity training and multicultural education for their communities.
Americans are torn between two radically conflicting representations of their own history. The first, highly idealised narrative is that of an open and generous country that welcomes immigrants regardless of their ethnicity or religion. The cultural diversity of the nation is something to be treasured and cherished, with an absolute protection of the freedom of religion. In this vision, Muslims are part and parcel of a multi-faith, multicultural America. This is the post-racial, optimist vision embodied by the presidency of Barack Obama, with the slogan: ‘Hope we can believe in.’
The second narrative, incarnated by Donald Trump, is equally strong: it’s a vision of a predominantly white, Christian America that needs to close its borders and focus on looking after its natives. This is a older, white America that fears being replaced by younger minority ethnic groups in the not-so-distant future. It’s a nation gripped by the fear of becoming culturally and economically irrelevant. These competing narratives dictate the differences in terms of attitudes towards Muslims between the Obama and the Trump White House.
Barack Obama was the salesman of a progressive America at ease with religious and ethnic diversity in a globalised world. Joshua Dubois, the White House executive director of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships between 2008 and 2013, helped design the President’s Interfaith Campus Challenge in 2011.
Dubois enrolled Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, to implement this vision of college campuses with their highly diverse student populations as ideal spaces for teaching the values of interfaith dialogue. This policy signalled the Obama administration’s commitment to the value of religious diversity as a crucial part of American identity. Eboo Patel explained that:
“It was part of the message that the Obama presidency was welcoming to all faiths, but there was no focus on Muslims. It was not an effort designed to build bridges with the American Muslim community – it was distinct from it. These were circles and initiatives that did not overlap.”
Towards the end of the second term, the White House did make deliberate efforts to build bridges with the American Muslim community, which included celebrating the positive contribution of Muslims to American society. In February 2016, Barack Obama visited a mosque in Baltimore and condemned the rise of Islamophobia in American society. The White House appointed Zaki Barzinji as a liaison to the Muslim American community under the Office of Public Engagement.
These policies came to an abrupt end with the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. During the campaign, he used fierce anti-immigrant rhetoric that was targeted at Latinos and Muslims. Some of Donald Trump’s most influential advisers – Steven Bannon, who left the White House in August 2017, and Stephen Miller – seem obsessed with the notion of a Muslim-liberal alliance bent on destroying a white American culture.
Miller has been the main architect of the Muslim travel ban, the executive order issued by Donald Trump on 27 January 2017 which temporarily prohibited entry to refuges and immigrants from seven Muslim countries. The executive order drew strong criticism from American universities.
At GMU, the reaction was immediate. The President of the University, Angel Cabrera, posted a letter on the 29th of January stating his deep concern, ‘urging the administration to reconsider this executive action and reverse course.’
One GMU student, Najwa Elyazgi, was prevented from coming back from Libya after the travel ban. Her ordeal lasted a week, after which she was allowed to re-enter the United States.
Since then, the controversy has died down. It looks as if the revised travel ban would have no impact on foreign students or staff coming from the countries under scrutiny, since an invitation to work or study at an university would qualify as a ‘bona fide’ relationship with the US.
If anything, in January-February 2017, Muslim students were pleasantly surprised by the strong, spontaneous reaction of solidarity emanating from various quarters of American civil society. They also felt supported by senior management and academic staff. As a professor told me, ‘there’s power in numbers’.
Throughout my six-month stay, I interviewed several Muslim students from various backgrounds. The majority felt their faith was a very important component of their life and their identity, and were keen to challenge anti-Muslim stereotypes.
Interviewees were generally happy with the level of support offered by GMU with respect to the accommodation of their religious needs. Indeed, the university has made tremendous efforts to provide an environment where Muslims can practise their faith, with quiet meditation spaces and foot-washing facilities in nearby bathrooms.
Although it’s open to everyone, the mediation space tends to be mostly used by Muslim students. There are regular complaints that the University sponsors the Islamic faith, thus violating the first Amendment of the US Constitution which prohibits Congress from preferring or elevating one religion over another. But these complaints have for the most part fallen on deaf ears, because the space is explicitly dedicated to meditation, not prayer.
Anecdotally, two respondents reported incidents of micro-aggressions by professors or on social media, but such incidents are difficult to prove. The Office of Ethics and Compliance said that although Muslim students have complained about Islamophobia on campus, it was more a subjective feeling than anything concrete. This did not mean that the university was not taking these complaints seriously. The Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Multicultural Education (ODIME) launched courses to help staff to become more aware of cultural and religious diversity, and the Campus Climate Group also closely monitors the atmosphere on campus.
On the whole, campus relations appeared to be quite harmonious at GMU, with no obvious tensions between various parts of the student body. I’d argue that part of the reason for this state of affairs could be that there’s been no overlap between pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel activism and the MSA. The MSA at GMU functions as a congregation that helps Muslim students develop a sense of belonging and solidarity. The leadership presents a positive image of Islam as a tolerant and open faith in phase with American constitutional values.
It is a fascinating time to be researching the representation of Islam in higher education in Europe and the United States. I feel privileged to have gained some insight into how American Muslim students live in the age of Trump.
I drew three main conclusions from the research. First, listening to Muslim students and staff at GMU helped deflate the image of Muslims as being fundamentally different from the rest of the student population. In particular, there was absolutely no evidence of an oppositional political identity; on the contrary, all interviewees identified with American civic values. That’s why it’s so crucial to keep challenging anti-Muslim stereotypes. The voice of young Muslims is a powerful one. It’s also important to listen to other faith or secular groups, as any perception of a hierarchy of demands within the university quickly gives rise to a feeling of injustice and resentment.
Second, while there was no perceived rise in Islamophobia on campus, Muslim female students were more likely to feel targeted, mainly from wearing the hijab. The political climate and Donald Trump’s rhetoric explained this higher sensitivity. Moreover, there were a series of high profile religiously-motivated crimes during the month of Ramadan. In June 2017, in Sterling, northern Virginia, a 17 year old girl, Nabra Hassanen, was abducted and beaten to death on the way back from the mosque. Her killer was Darwin Martinez Torres, a native of El Salvador.
The police said the killing was the result of ‘road rage’. This version of events has been highly criticised by the local Muslim community.
Although the exact motives of the crime may never become completely clear, there’s no denying that Muslim women have become increasingly vulnerable to ‘gendered Islamophobia’. I would argue it’s urgent to take a principled stance that acknowledges these feelings and expresses solidarity with potential targets. It’s precisely because there was such a big pushback against the travel ban that Muslim students continued to feel positively welcome at GMU. Strongly worded messages from the university’s president did make a difference to Muslim students. Messages of solidarity, inclusivity and mutual understanding need to come from the top, in clearly worded statements that leave no room for interpretation.
Third, mutual dialogue between both people of faith and no faith is key to the building of trust and a sense of belonging. This does not mean that difficult issues should be brushed under the carpet. Robust disagreement is healthy; students should be given the tools to accept that it’s fine ‘to agree to disagree’. This is the challenge and the promise of the multicultural campus.