Dozens of students streamed into the building, chatting excitedly as they prepared for dinner. The air was abuzz with the excitement of a party — a typical scene on a Friday night at Yale. The students were Muslims from across the Northeast, gathering at St. Thomas More, the Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale, for a night of spiritual reflection and fun. Welcome to the Ivy Muslim Conference.
The annual conference, which attracts nearly 200 Muslim students from across the Ivy League took place last weekend on April 8 and 9. The Yale Muslim Students Association hosted the event for the sixth time since its inception in 2010. Visitors were greeted at the registration table, where they signed in and were given pamphlets packed with information about the upcoming program. A welcome message on the first page, penned by Yale Muslim Chaplain Omer Bajwa, introduced the intention of the conference: “In the midst of contemporary American academic life in the Ivy League, many Muslims grapple with issues of identity and purpose. The sixth Ivy Muslim Conference invites Muslim to continue to explore, interrogate and discuss these issues, especially as they relate to their intellectual and spiritual lives.”
The idea for this kind of event has been around for a long time, since Bajwa graduated from Cornell in 2006, where he received an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies with a specialization in Islamic Studies, as well as an M.S. in communications. Bajwa loved the university’s large and vibrant Muslim community. As members of Cornell’s Muslim Education and Cultural Association, he and his wife, Lisa Kinney-Bajwa, tried to bring the diverse members of the Muslim student body together by organizing picnics and similar social activities. That experience served as inspiration for what came next.
“The credit goes to Lisa,” Bajwa explained. “She said, ‘Why don’t we bring all the other MSAs [in the Ivy League] together?’ Our MSA is doing all this work, but it’s good to have mutually beneficial exchanges. We wanted to see how other campuses were doing it.”
The two were enthusiastic about the idea, but they ran into roadblocks almost instantly. The most difficult obstacle was Cornell’s isolated location in the remote reaches of upstate New York. Most speakers felt discouraged at the prospect of traversing such a long distance for such a short event, and ordinary students felt the same. It wasn’t until 2008, when Bajwa became the Muslim chaplain at Yale, that the idea of an inter-Ivy MSA conference became feasible. Yale’s location in New Haven, a city conveniently situated at a center point between all the Ivy League institutions, was far more visitor-friendly than Cornell had been. Bajwa pitched the idea to the Yale MSA in his second year, and it wasn’t long after that the thought became reality.
Umar Qadri ’11, who was the vice president of the MSA at the time, recalls how excited the board was about the idea. “[We] had a number of brainstorming sessions about how to make it happen and we went from there,” he said. “It was a very organic, community-driven effort.”
This year’s conference was the latest result of that never-ending process of improvement. Planning began months in advance, with various brainstorming sessions open to everyone in the Muslim community. Qadri believes that collaboration is the best part of the event.
“Every year, we try to make [Ivy Muslim Conference] better,” said Didem Kaya ’16. “With the help of our chaplain Omer and all student volunteers, I think this year was the best one we have had so far.”
Even before the main lectures on Saturday, there was no shortage of things to do. On the first night, after the conclusion of the welcome address and opening halaqa — a lecture on spirituality — most of the attending students gathered in the Branford Common Room for a 90-minute Open Mic talent show. Ahmed Syed ’18 and Emtithal Mahmoud ’16 emceed the event, asking for volunteers to come up on stage and show off their abilities. The results were colorful: nasheeds (Islamic songs), rapping, spoken word, movie impressions and even stand-up comedy.
The two panel sessions on Saturday, which addressed themes particularly relevant to Muslim college students, were a major part of the event. Dr. Esam Omeish, former president of the national MSA and of the Muslim American Society, and Sohaib Sultan, the Muslim chaplain of Princeton University, spoke about activism in the Muslim community and spiritual healing. Nancy Khalil, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology in Harvard, spoke about the challenges Muslims face on college campuses, as well as navigating spaces dominated by secular ideologies. Mohammed Hassan, a therapist at the Bleuler Psychotherapy Center and at the Queens/Long Island Counseling Services of the Foundation for Religion and Mental Health, gave a lecture that fused Islamic theology with psychotherapy. He spoke about the unfortunate tendency of some Muslims to conflate psychological, physical, social and spiritual issues, stressing that they have their own specific treatments.
During the question-and-answer session, a student asked how Muslims should manage between representing and advocating for their communities when tragedy strikes (as it did with shootings at Chapel Hill, North Carolina last year and Fort Wayne, Texas this year) while also giving themselves time to grieve. Hassan responded by speaking of balance between Islamic activism and spiritual well-being. He also extended that need for balance to emotional and physical health.
“Chart your schedule and look at it,” said Hassan. “In this schedule, do I have time for my body? Do I have time for God? Do I have time for my friends? If you see an area of your life that’s missing, then you know you’re living your life handicapped.”
To the stressed out, overworked students in the audience trying to keep their lives in order, Hassan’s straightforward advice and understanding of their circumstances must have been welcome.
“I really enjoyed it,” said Saad Syed ’16. “Too many times I’ve seen mental health issues ignored in the Muslim community, so it was nice to see that the topic was brought to the public forum.”
The panels, despite being the main events of the conference, still felt surprisingly intimate, with an audience of just 180 students. Unlike most events of its kind, which usually aim to maximize attendance, the Ivy Muslim Conference is deliberately designed with a limited crowd in mind.
“The kind of conversations we’re going to have, the kind of issues we’re going to broach, are done better in a small group,” Bajwa said.
That mindset is exemplified in the conference’s eight breakout sessions: small group discussions of 10 to 20 people that serve as an open dialogue about the personal challenges, stories and thoughts of the students involved on a wide array of topics relevant to them and the broader Muslim community. The sessions are highly personalized and completely dependent on the interests of the students conversing. The breakout session leaders, all of whom were Yale students, were instructed to facilitate but not control the conversation, allowing it to flow organically from one topic to the next.
“We opened it with, how can MSA reach out to other minority groups on campus,” said Qadri, one of the breakout session leaders. “[The discussion] ended up going to the Masjid communities. You have all the Pakistanis on one side, the Arabs on another side and the Turks on the other, and there’s no real interaction outside of [prayer]. A lot of the discussion dealt with personal stories that people had. It was a really good and real discussion that I think needed to be had. It was beneficial for everyone.”
Ishrat Mannan ’17, another breakout session leader, hosted a group that pursued a different line of discourse.
“We discussed the role of the Muslims as individuals and a community to combat prejudice, racism and xenophobia,” she said. “It was extremely encouraging to see people discuss how both differences and similarities within our communities should be seen as strengths. During the last half we tried to have conversations about how [to] productively and proactively use what we’ve discussed in that one hour and go back to our MSAs or communities back home and effect change.”
The biggest event of the evening was the keynote session. The speaker this year was Hassan Shibly, the current director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations in Florida, an organization dedicated to improving the image of Islam in America and combating Islamophobia. He is also the founder of the Center for American Muslim Understanding, and often gives lectures on issues relating to Islam in America and civil rights. He was an ideal speaker for this year’s conference, which focused on reacting to prejudice and bigotry at a time when political rhetoric and cultural climate has become increasingly hostile to Muslims.
“The keynote this year seemed to definitely center more on political empowerment than it has in the past,” Saad Syed said. “Given the image of Islam in the media, especially in the coverage of the primaries, I’m not surprised at all. This is an important conversation to have.”
In his 90-minute timeslot, Shibly outlined the true magnitude of the challenges facing Muslims in America, noting that hate crimes against Muslims increased fivefold last year and that millions of dollars continue to be spent on Islamophobic propaganda. He recounted a case he’d encountered in Orlando, Florida involving the unjust imprisonment of a Muslim imam based on nonexistent evidence that he was tied to terrorism. The Islamophobia that leads to such incidents, Shibly stressed, undermines the First Amendment and American ideals of freedom.
“American Muslims are now being positioned in a unique role,” said Shibly. “We are positioned to establish our legacy as forefront defenders of justice and civil rights for all humanity. And that is why Islamophobia is a blessing, because it is forcing us to stop thinking about just the medical field, the fields of engineering and sciences, and start thinking about civil rights.”
Shibly was not interested in only discussing Islamophobia, though. He spent much of his time encouraging his audience to be both socially and spiritually active. He placed a special emphasis on preserving one’s faith and improving one’s self.
That fusion of social, political, and spiritual guidance was exactly what keynote sessions were meant to achieve.
“[The keynote speaker] going to be in a room with some of the most talented, hard-working, ambitious Muslim students in college,” said Bajwa. “These are people that are aspiring for positions of leadership. What are the spiritual values that you want to impart to them about the responsibility that comes with leadership?”
The student audience received the keynote speech well, asking questions in the question-and-answer session that varied from the mechanics of law to personal improvement. The overall reception to the event was overwhelmingly positive, with students expressing satisfaction with the roll of speakers and the topics discussed.
“[The conference] exceeded my expectations,” said Zeshan Gondal ’19, who was on the conference’s housing committee. He especially appreciated the chance to reunite with some high school friends at other Ivy League schools. “There’s very few opportunities for all of us to get together, and IMC is that opportunity.”
Qadri agrees. As a Yale alum, he found that the most memorable aspect of the conference was meeting up with fellow alums from his class. He took the opportunity to catch up with some old friends.
After the keynote speech and question session ended, the conference quickly wrapped up, as St. Thomas More closes at 10 p.m. Feelings of great happiness and subtle wistfulness pervaded the heartfelt farewells of friends. The event had been fun and fulfilling, but it had perhaps ended too soon. Not many events like the IMC exist in the Ivy League; it would be a while before these students would get a similar opportunity to gather together, in a closed environment with members of a shared space, to discuss the issues that matter to them.
“To have a space where you can have intellectual and spiritual conversation at the same time is very profound for people,” Qadri said. “Elite, secular campuses can be very hostile to conversations about religion and spirituality. [The Ivy Muslim Conference] is a safe space. A safe haven.”