During Islam Awareness Week, students at Yale had a chance to engage in a dialogue with their peers about the hard questions facing Muslim Americans today.
Hosted by the Muslim Students Association at Yale from Feb. 28 to March 5, Islam Awareness Week was intended to help students learn about Islam through a series of events and campaigns that encouraged them to develop an understanding of the religion and challenge Islamophobic conceptions perpetuated by the modern media, said Coordinator of Muslim Life Omer Bajwa. Organizers said the week’s events were especially relevant in light of recent hate crimes against Muslims as well as conversations on Yale’s campus about racial justice and equality.
“Islam Awareness Week this year has been bittersweet,” Elamin Elamin ’18 said in opening remarks for a “Positioning Islam Today” teach-in held Saturday. “While we have enjoyed the opportunity to have events, discussions, and hand out roses … we were harshly reminded of the real, tragic impact of senseless violence that plagues the Muslim community. In a time when hate crimes such as violence against individuals and vandalism of mosques are the highest since 9/11, it is most pressing that we speak and learn about Islam in an open and honest way.”
The week began with a screening last Sunday of “Enemy of the Reich,” a documentary about a Muslim woman who helped fight the Nazis during World War II, as well as a photo campaign on Cross Campus. On Tuesday, a planned trivia night was canceled due to an evening vigil that mourned the Indiana shooting of three Sudanese men, two of whom were practicing Muslims and the cousins of Emi Mahmoud ’16. The vigil gave students a chance to see the impact of what Bajwa called “rampant and virulent Islamophobia.” The week culminated in the teach-in, during which three panels allowed students and professionals to reflect on what it means to be Muslim in the modern Islamophobic climate. Other highlights included a talk on gender in Islam and an open “Jumma,” which is the traditional Friday Muslim prayer.
While Islamophobia may not be a dangerous issue in the “Yale bubble,” the educated elite to which Yale students belong has a responsibility to intellectually engage in assumptions about Muslims that go unquestioned in the broader world, Bajwa said. He added that he has been surprised by the “blind spots” some Yale students have when it comes to Islam, despite the generally worldly and well-educated community.
Elamin said that though he has not encountered Islamophobia at Yale, he has seen some ignorance and apathy in the community due to the difficulty of engaging in conversations about religion. Islam Awareness Week gave Muslim students a platform through which to educate their peers about what it means to be a Muslim American in everyday life, while peers were able to have conversations with practicing Muslims in order to clear up misconceptions.
During Saturday’s panel, four Yale students discussed their experiences as practicing Muslims in a generally secularized institution. Susan Aboeid ’19 said her most difficult moment upon arriving at Yale was confronting the community’s prevalent irreligious rhetoric and needing to justify her beliefs to those who challenged what she had once seen as a relationship purely between herself and her God. Mary Turfah ’16, another panelist, added that she was bothered by how, in the Yale community, her “Muslimness somehow has to come before [her] personhood.”
“Most people who are religious are themselves and then their religion, but Muslims are expected to somehow be Muslim before that, especially for Muslim women who wear a hijab,” Turfah said. “Somehow, they represent this meta thing that is Islam before they are even themselves; every action they do doesn’t reflect their persons, but reflects this religion that takes up more than 2 billion people. Muslims need to be treated more as individuals and human beings that have personalities and differences just like anyone else, and that is not something that is difficult to do, but it seems to be more than we can ask of people.”
Other student panelists echoed the idea that being visibly Muslim at Yale sometimes requires that they take on the role of a “spokesperson” for Islam, especially in classes that attempt to deconstruct the religion through a highly critical lens. These classes are often taught by professors who do not have the terminology and experience through which to approach Muslim issues, and they are usually taught in departments such as Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations that lack representation of Muslim academics, a student who wished to remain anonymous told the News. Though studying Islam through a secular lens can have benefits, greater representation of Muslim academics would help represent the religion more completely, the student added.
Panelists also reflected on their experiences with Islam in the classroom, particularly defending their beliefs in an academic context to professors with whom they disagreed.
Beyond Yale, Islamophobia is a real issue that is being perpetuated by mainstream media, a “toxic” political dialogue and politicians themselves, Bajwa said. Despite being emotionally overwhelmed by the shootings two weeks ago and at Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 2015, Aboeid said that she has difficulty blaming the shooters for their actions because they were responding to the negative image of Muslims commonly portrayed by the media. There is a difference between officially being a citizen of the state and socially being an American, Turfah added, saying that she does not consider herself socially American despite having been born here.
Islamophobia and “exclusionary rhetoric” in general are some of the main issues that Yale’s current students will be confronting after graduation, making education about Muslim life especially relevant, Bajwa said.
“I am very hopeful that the young generation will be able to help overcome this wave of Islamophobia,” Mongi Dhaouadi, executive director of Connecticut’s Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the News after speaking during the third panel on Saturday. “Yale is always looked at as an institution that leads in thought and action and producing leaders for this nation, and so when we come to Yale, we always have in mind that the person I’m speaking to as a student will be leading the way in a few years. It is extremely important that we keep this dialogue alive and it is extremely important that we hear these stories from various points of view.”
According to a survey by the Yale University Chaplain’s Office, just under 4 percent of Yale undergraduates identify as Muslim.