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  • Writer's pictureMarjorie Anne Foster

Islam in College

Updated: May 15, 2020

In today’s era of stigmatization, Islamophobia, and political and social turmoil, Muslim college students seek to develop their place in American society in the context of their religious identities.

Farzeen Najam remembers her conflicting feelings as she sat at home in Pakistan and filled out a visa application to study computer science at Duke University. At the age of 16, she was one of two scholarship winners in her country. It was the year 2016, and she watched as the presidential race unfolded in the United States.  

Farzeen Najam on a trip to New York City.

Her excitement met feelings of apprehension as she watched candidate Donald Trump stirring public fears about Muslim immigrants. “I saw him saying, ‘We need to kick these Muslims out,’” said Najam. “I was watching my dreams of studying in America slip away.”

The day after Trump won the election, Najam posted a heartfelt note on the Trump campaign’s Facebook page pleading that her entry into the U.S. was her only chance to pursue opportunities beyond Pakistan.  

Despite misgivings from her Pakistani family about going to a country with a “leader that hates Muslims,” Najam received her visa in 2017. But she says she remains alert to the reality that the U.S. could considered dangerous for those practicing Islam. 

Najam is just one of many Muslim students navigating life in America while holding to their religious identities despite the episodes of stigmatization and islamophobia they endure, whether online or in the news or in daily exchanges on their college campuses. Despite the antagonistic reactions they have faced, college-age Muslims have also learned to savor the moments of support given by non-Muslims, particularity on college campuses.

These students have had their college years framed by the policies of a president who at one point called for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.

He didn’t succeed with that, but Trump’s administration did enact Executive Order 5680, which banned all travel and refugees from eight predominantly Muslim countries, an order many Muslims feel branded Muslims as potential terrorists and created an illusion of security.

right-wing extremists were behind twice as many incidents of domestic terror from 2008 to the end of 2016. Sixty-three cases of Islamist occurred with 76 percent being foiled while right-wing extremist terrorism was more often deadly, resulting in 79 deaths.

The interviews found below were collected over two years with more than 40 Muslim college students, chaplains and imams from schools in North Carolina; With the hopes of gaining a better understanding of the ways Muslims negotiated their religion as the minority. Included in this site are stories, anecdotes and explanations from each of these students about the struggle and success on American college campuses. 

Duke University MSA.

Farzeen’s Facebook post on Trump’s wall was met with hundreds of “likes” and hundreds of comments telling her, for example, “not to come to the country if she doesn't like Trump.” But, ultimately her visa was passed and she has been able to take advantage of her American education. 

Personal Fear 

For Azra Amal, a senior at East Carolina University, the Presidential election marked the moment she stopped covering her head to avoid near-daily insults and threats from strangers.

In one instance, Amal was at an arcade on a Friday night with her family when someone approached her and yelled “go back to ISIS!”

“In that moment, I realized being outwardly Muslims wouldn’t be safe for me or my family,” said Amal. “Just knowing that there are people out there who hate me because of things I believe… even if those things don’t impact them… that made me very afraid.”

Recent North Carolina State Graduate Moneeb Saayed was the president of him school’s Muslims Student Association following the election and said he spent the year consoling his members about their futures in the United States.

“Most of the students in the [Muslim Student Association] were genuinely afraid for what would happen to them in the days following the election,” said Saayed. “They just wanted to know how to protect themselves on campus.”

For most students, it wasn’t the election that brought fear, but rather the spike in U.S. hate crimes towards Muslims and the global uptake in Muslim targeted terrorist attacks. 

Duke University MSA.

Rise in Crime 

According to a 2017 FBI report, there has been a 17 percent spike in hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. over the last five years. More recent reports have shown a dip in hate crimes and a rise in violence against individuals.

Globally, events such as the New Zealand terrorist attack, leaving 51 people from two mosques dead, made students realize that they may be in danger because of their religious orientation. 

Sarah Akram, a Sophomore at NC State, said she carries herself differently now because she knows that her presence in a room could “feel threatening” solely because she has chosen to wear the hijab, making her an outward follower of Islam. 

“Islamophobia was always hard for me to comprehend and it felt far off . . . like it would never happen to me,” Akram said. “But, after the New Zealand shooting, it became real.”

Close to Home

Many students shared this idea that being targeted for their religion was far off, but when three students were shot and killed in their home in Chapel Hill, N.C. in 2015, the fear was palpable. One of the victim’s cousins, Saleh Barakat said that he thinks about the attack constantly.

Saleh Barakat recalls his cousin Deah Barakat as someone who would do whatever he could for his family and community. One example was a tweet on posted in 2014, which his family later brought to a living reality through the Light House Project. "Deah" means "light" in Arabic.

Saleh Barakat was a in junior high at the time of the murder and at first, he said, he was fearful to reveal his faith to others, even distancing himself from the Muslim community. As he grew older, eventually reaching college, he said he has recommitted to his faith.

“For a while the fear of being Muslim was paralyzing. I couldn’t stop thinking of what happened to Deah,” Barakat said. “But right now, I see it as a motivation to deepen my religion even more.”

Suzanne Barakat, sister of murder victim Deah Barakat addresses his killer Craig Hicks in a hearing in Durham, NC Wednesday, June 12, 2019. Hicks pleaded guilty to the murder of Barakat, his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan.

For Farzeen Najam, life in the U.S. hasn’t been framed by fear, but rather pressure to “be nice to everyone so that they do not think Muslims are these horrible, evil people.”The idea that she, as just one person, is expected to represents the entire religion has caused her to be afraid of making mistakes or saying the wrong thing. 

Najam said this “unnecessary pressure” to preform is heightened in social situations, including when she deals with the five roommates in her apartment, none of whom are Muslim.

“A lot of people here are connect by going out for drinks and going to like clubs and I cannot be a part of it,” Najam said. “So that's why I've always felt left out in a lot of places and feel the need to overcompensate.” 

Campus Trends

Elon University Chaplain Jane Fuller said college students today have had a hard time knowing who is Muslim on campus because so many people do not self-identify whether from fear or due to the pressure to represent their religion at all times. 

“I can’t say I blame them,” said Fuller. “They just feel like people are suspicious of them, that the essence of their religion is being misunderstood.”

Elon University Imam Shane Atkinson agrees with Fuller and says that his job as a spiritual guide is not to force people to join the Muslim community, but to a source of support. 

“We [Muslims] are a demonized, religious minority community, so I have to be respectful of the students that may be fearful to let people know they are Muslim,” he said.

Despite the fears students have acquired towards outwardly expressing their faith, many have learned that not all spaces are dangerous, particularly in regards to their college campuses serving as a refuge.

Support in the Face of Hatred

Given the climate of hostility towards Islam on one side and religious extremists distorting their religion with violence on the other, many of the students I interviewed were eager to describe the not-often-mentioned support that non-Muslims have extended to them

Shariq Ali a senior at Elon University said he has experienced an outpouring of encouragement in the last five years. According to him, “Yes, times are hard for Muslims in the U.S. But, it is also the first time I have seen non-Muslims defend me and my faith in such a visible way.”

This trend can be seen globally in the aftermath of terrorist attacks targeting Muslims. In the days following the New Zealand shootings, people around the world demonstrated solidarity with the mosques in their areas. Najam recalled the time Duke students surrounded the Muslim community during prayer following the attacks as an expression of support.

“People who had no idea what we were doing came out, lit candles and made sure we felt safe,” Najam said. “Duke has created an extremely supportive space that makes me feel welcome, no matter what religion I practice.”

The reality for many Muslim students is that the sentiments expressed towards Islam are heightened, both positively and negatively, leaving students unsure of where it may be safe for them to outwardly practice their religion. But, for these N.C. students, their campuses have been a safe haven that has allowed them to feel more welcome and accepted in their religious beliefs.

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