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  • Writer's pictureRev Liza M. Neal

You Can't Take the Islam Out of Islamophobia

First published in Inside Higher Ed, Nov 6 2018

They meet in secret. If you asked them whether that was true, they would say, of course not. If you ask the time or date, they will share some, but not all, of the information. People of all races, religions and orientations are welcome, as long as they have been invited. They don’t advertise online or with fliers. It’s word of mouth only.

This is the life of Muslim students on liberal campuses all over the United States today. Often they are some of the most popular students on the campus. You will see their pictures in admissions catalogs and their names in leadership positions. Those who are international students are often happy to tell you what country they are from and what it’s like to be an international student. But if you ask them if they are religious, they will likely tell you “no” or “not really.”

In fact, their religious practices vary widely. Some are entirely secular, seeing their identity as a cultural one. Some celebrate only on the big holidays like Ramadan. Some pray once a day or week, and some pray five times a day every day. But they all identify as Muslim.

The meetings themselves are quite sweet and innocuous.

They make chai and catch up on where they are with their schoolwork and love lives, talk about being homesick and how much sleep they are or are not getting. It’s like any other gathering of college students, except that they are afraid to let the campus at large know about it.

Some of those concerns can be attributed to the atmosphere of the country at large, President Trump’s travel bans and the stereotype of every Muslim as a terrorist. Yet progressive college campuses have denounced such things. Many have pledged to fight racism within and without, have declared themselves sanctuary campuses or, at least, have insisted that they will do all that they can to support all their students. So where’s the disconnect?

The disconnect lies at the intersection between race and religion.

The disconnect lies at the intersection between race and religion. Liberal faculty members, administrators and students frequently express their desire to address racism, even if how they actually practice doing so may be imperfect, poor or nonexistent. But when it comes to religion, they may openly roll their eyes, question the validity of its existence even in classes dedicated to its study or simply leave it out entirely in discussions of diversity and difference.

The trouble is, however, that you can’t take the Islam out of Islamophobia.

Secular liberal institutions would like to believe that Islamophobia happens only at religious campuses. They decry racism and critique Christian hegemony, excluding themselves from any responsibility for Islamophobic attitudes and practices. But to commit to addressing issues of racism while leaving the structure of religious dismissal on secular campuses intact does not allow Islamophobia to be addressed. In fact, it allows it to flourish and spread.

When faculty members at one institution perceived administrators responded more vehemently to violence in France than violence in Lebanon, they raised the alarm of racism. They dismissed the vigil for Lebanon that the office of religious life led and accused it of being an afterthought. But students from France, Lebanon and many other countries attended that vigil, while faculty and staff members were notably absent. Understandably, those students questioned the faculty and staff’s professed indignation and did not feel supported by them.

When an accepted student at another college contacted current students to ask what the atmosphere on the campus was like, whether they should come, the first question that student received was, “Do you wear a hijab?” And they heard that if they were willing to practice their religion less visibly, then yes, it would be a great institution to attend. If they were not, they should think about going elsewhere. And where is that elsewhere? Where is that place where students can access an education without having that which is most sacred in their hearts delegitimized and disrespected?

The intensification of harassment based on visible religious practice is not limited to Muslims. Jewish students who wear kippah, tallith and tefillin are also subject to a range of negative responses, including not only scornful comments but also physical attacks. Students who would be horrified to think that they were promoting anti-Semitism do not see their behavior as problematic. Because their comments and actions are directed toward the person’s religious practice rather than their ethnic identity, it is socially acceptable in the wider campus community.

Indeed, antireligious bias is not only socially acceptable but also treated at times as an educated response to the existence of religious violence in the world. Obviously, that approach ignores all the human rights movements grounded in religion. It neglects the peace and justice and communal care grounded in religions. It disallows for addressing religious fundamentalism on its own terms. In a vicious twist of irony, it encourages an atmosphere to flourish in which it is acceptable to look down upon one group of people. It’s just a different group of people -- and in this case, one that crosses race, culture, gender, sexuality, class, ability and nationality. Antireligious bias actually contributes to the continuation of misunderstanding, ignorance, division, oppression and violence.

Higher education and our country as a whole are at a crossroads. Incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have risen across the world and on our campuses. White supremacists have openly marched on the streets, chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.” This is not a time when we can afford to allow our biases to go unchecked. Allowing such antireligious bias to exist only advances the cause of white supremacy.

This spring, at a progressive liberal arts campus, an open Muslim prayer service was held for the first time in its history. Students of different races, faiths, genders and sexual orientations attended, as did staff members from student life and the dean of the faculty’s office. People were free to join in or just be present. Afterward, the Muslim students described their childhoods and what they did at home on Fridays. They talked about their religious practice and their lives. Change is possible.

Institutions of higher education have an incredible opportunity. What will we do with that opportunity? Can we address the hatred and division rife on our campuses and in our country? Can we talk across our differences? Can we create a space where we can learn and grow while simultaneously respecting each person’s race, religion, class, ability, and sexual and gender identity? Can we learn and grow if we do not?

We can bury our heads in the sand and perpetuate our biases, or we can create an atmosphere of true respect and fulfill our mandate to educate the whole human being.

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