Somewhere on campus, a man calls a female student a terrorist from his car window, a group of students passionately argue the logic behind public bans on hijabs and a TA refuses to give a student her exam until she removes her headscarf.
Elsewhere on campus, hallmates stay up all night with a student until morning prayer to learn about Islam, community spaces to discuss religious and ethnic identity thrive and the general openness and good–heartedness of Penn students abounds.
There exists a tension on Penn’s campus, then, a tension between the various shades of Islamophobia Muslim students experience. This strain ranges from blatant vitriol to nuanced microaggressions—and the values of an elite, liberal, northeastern university which encourage tolerance, but to an unclear and imperfect extent
Muslim students on Penn’s campus have grown up in the shadow of 9/11 and a rising tide of Islamophobia consuming the international, national and even local political stages. “A whole new dimension of living Muslim in America has emerged since September 11,” University Chaplain Reverend Charles Howard notes solemnly, before comparing this reality with its social counterweight, “On the positive though, I think that the fruit of the last 15 years has also been a desire for understanding and familiarity with Islam in a way that wasn’t there before.”
A microcosm of a turbulent world, Penn finds itself in the nexus of these countervailing truths, somewhat complicating the largely positive experience of many Muslim students.
The Muslim Student Experience
Zuhaib Badami, a sophomore from Saudi Arabia in the Huntsman program, conveys a positive experience on Penn’s campus when it comes to his faith and religious identity— as many Muslim students do. “Honestly, I’m thankful; I’ve been pretty blessed in not encountering Islamophobic incidents,” in fact, he finds that people are often rather interested in learning about Islam. Freshman year he taught floormates about Muslim prayer after having an all night discussion about religion. Yet, at the same time that Zuhaib finds potential allies at Penn, there still remains the subtlest tinge of nuanced exoticization. “You will still get people who are like, when you’re like ‘I’m Muslim,’ they’ll be like, ‘Oh that’s cool!’ And it’s like, is it? I think it’s pretty normal, I mean it should be pretty normal, not exotic, just normal.”
Still, as an international student, Penn’s campus has also been liberating for Zuhaib in meaningful ways. “I can pray freely, well mostly pray freely in the States, whereas I can’t do that in Saudi Arabia… On an emotional level it definitely means that I enjoy the fact that like there’s a Mosque here that’s ten minutes away that I can go to for prayer every day. Whereas in Saudi Arabia, I would have to drive a half an hour, 40 minutes to get to one Mosque across three cities.” For Zuhaib, Penn means more religious freedom on a welcoming campus, but not without the occasional frustration.
Adam Adnane, a senior in the College, seconds Zuhaib and relays a positive experience of Penn as a Muslim student, but tempers his responses somewhat. “I’m not going to say there are no people on campus that don’t have negative views of Islam or Muslims because that would be an untruth,” he explains, “But I am going to say that the environment and the majority of people, they’re open to learning and understanding other people.”
Adam knows firsthand the complex truth that ignorance and Islamophobia are alive on campus, a stark contrast from the positivity he usually encounters. Adam, as he describes it, is able to pass as an “average white guy” which often means he hears comments that people wouldn’t say if “[he were] easily identifiable as Muslim.” Adam gives the example of impassioned discussions about policies banning religious coverings. Thus, despite widespread tolerance, it’s unclear how deeply values of acceptance truly run when no one is there to hear what is said.
This dichotomous experience is perhaps explained by Penn’s dedication to supporting Muslim students in the face of the new social experience of American Muslims since September 11. Reverend Howard, while self–admittedly biased, sees Penn as a leader in supporting Muslim students with a dedicated Muslim prayer room—in the Spiritual and Religious Life Center at Penn (SPARC) on the second floor of Houston—and a Muslim Campus Minister, among other resources. Especially when, in Reverend Howard’s estimation, “a minority of schools” offer a dedicated Muslim Campus Minister and where Penn was “probably among the first five [schools]” to offer such a resource.
As new Muslim Campus Minister Patricia Anton sees her role, she is a hub of interfaith resources, a mentor for Muslim students, and an educator both helping Muslim students develop a deeper understanding of their faith while also creating learning opportunities for Penn at large. “Muslims are less than one percent of the population of this country, but everybody has questions for us so it is something that can weigh on students," she explains. "They have to deal with this a lot, so I think that having someone that can formally help through the interfaith channels, through academic channels, be available to answer questions, provide frameworks is helpful.” Anton serves as a sort of expert to help foster awareness in the larger Penn community while also helping students learn to answer tough questions themselves. With Penn leading the charge to support the experience of Muslim students on campus, it’s easy to understand why many Muslim students, like Adam and Zuhaib, feel safe and comfortable.
With institutional and broad student body support on one hand but with Islamophobia still infiltrating on the other, Muslim students are left in an ambiguous middle ground. Irtiqa Fazili, a senior in the College, points to an answer, “It’s hard to be like, ‘Now that I’ve stepped onto 38th Street I no longer feel that [Islamophobia] exists.’ In fact, it was on 39th Street that a man called her a terrorist from his car. Penn, within Philly, within the United States, is difficult to separate from a world where Islamophobic ads connecting “the Muslim world” and Hitler are strewn across SEPTA, a world where implicitly negative narratives about the religion of billions are everywhere. A world where, as Adam posits, “99.999% of what the media covers on Muslims is negative aspects.” A world where, as Anton importantly notes, “These images that have been put on the news and through media of violence of terror are, they’re just continuous, there’s a lot of them, but yet where are the images of Muslims being Muslims every day? It is an absolute skewed perception of reality, you don’t see them living their lives.” Penn, as a few city blocks, can only serve as an imperfect, ultimately penetrable shield. It cannot dissociate from reality
The Othering of Islam
On Penn’s campus, as Irtiqa describes, most Islamophobia is microaggressive. Muslim students rarely encounter explicitly cruel language, though that is not to say they never do. At the heart of the subtle Islamophobia Muslim students face appears to be a common thread of assumed foreignness.
Adam’s passing as an “average white guy” is telling, illuminating the assumption that ostensible whiteness and Islam are incompatible. “There’s an identifier that’s associated with Islam that the media and movies and cinema have always latched onto the religion and its people, that I guess people have just accepted,” observes Adam, speaking to the inaccurate public image of Islam as only “people with darker skin or people who wear the hijab.”
In this way, Islamophobia has a further reach than just Muslims. Zuhaib explains that "Islamophobia affects Sikhs, it affects Indians, if affects Arab Jews, it affects Arab Christians, it affects Sri Lankans who are not Muslim, it affects all sorts of people who are not necessarily Muslims.” Islamophobia, then, attacks what is apparently non–Western, often meaning nonwhite, setting up a comparison between the assumed normality of some racial, ethnic and religious groups versus others.
These grand sociopolitical forces do not always manifest themselves blatantly, however. As Irtiqa explains, just a single sentence can reveal a good deal about Islamophobia. “The biggest way I feel Islamophobia is when people say, ‘Not you, I mean everyone else,’ because it reduces all of the good things about me to Americanism or being Americanized or being Westernized," Irtiqa confessed. "Which is frustrating to me because, at least personally, the reason I am the way I am, or the reason my personality is shaped this way is because I want to embody the tenets of my religion that tell me how I should interact with other people.” Here, “everyone else” represents Muslims at large as Irtiqa’s identity as an American Muslim is split in two, where what is positive is disconnected from Islam and attributed to Western culture.
And while Islamophobia may speak generally to the larger societal tendency towards the othering of minority groups, it is important to note a specific aspect of Islamophobia, reaching beyond just an alienation of what is not white, “Western” or “American.” In the case of Islamophobia, it is the othering of those unfairly perceived as potentially dangerous. Reverend Howard explains that, “In the classroom students have told me when the topic turns to terror or ISIL/ISIS, everyone looks over at you because you must be the expert on Islam, and what are you going to do on this topic, and what are you going to do about y’all people.” Muslims are often treated as connected to ideas of violent extremism that look nothing like their beliefs or the beliefs of the vast majority of Muslims globally. At a time where Islamophobia plays such a large role on the American and international political stages when it comes to questions of Syrian refugees, terror and ISIS, the social image of Muslims is further distorted. Islamophobia as it operates today, not only draws lines along religious or ethnoracial differences, but demarcates which groups a majority considers a potential threat, seemingly negating their individuality.
Fighting Hatred with Knowledge
While a large part of Islamophobia, both broadly and on campus, is assumed foreignness, an equally problematic factor is the basic ignorance many have about Islam, its tenets, and even the experience of Muslims. Seeing the problem clearly, Muslim students are working to combat this by creating spaces for dialogue and changing narratives about Muslims at Penn and beyond.
Sensing a need for discussion about Islamophobia on campus, Majid Mubeen, a senior in the college, along with Zuhaib and recent graduate Fahmida Sarmin, founded Penn Students Against Islamophobia and Discrimination (Penn SAID). Speaking on the inspiration behind Penn SAID, Majid explains that “The basic idea was to work together and maybe get resources and information from anyone who was affected by Islamophobia and anyone who wants to be an ally.” Majid, with Zuhaib and Fahmida, worked to fill a void on campus when it came to discussing and actively combatting Islamophobia and doing so across communities. “I wanted to create a space where everyone could sort of meld and mix together," explained Majid. "And would allow people to feel comfortable even if they weren’t of the Muslim faith to engage, because I think there wasn’t a space for everyone to normally just interact.”
According to Majid, while Islamophobia may be “muted” on Penn’s campus, it is not nonexistent and he believes that while he has been relatively unaffected, that that isn’t the case for all; he hopes that Penn SAID can help to better inform students of each other’s experiences, identifying the problem and educating students to be agents of change, especially when leaving the bubble of campus life.
Adam, too, has set his sights on a project to take on Islamophobia, starting a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Tuesday’s Children, an organization forged in the aftermath of 9/11 which helps youth, families, and communities recover from the trauma of violence, often terrorism, through a number of different programs. At the heart of his work, as a campaign headed by a Muslim, Adam wants to reframe the often negative view of Muslims, “three or four billion people aren’t here to hurt you, they’re here to love one another and love others and just live their lives peacefully.” Still, Adam earnestly explains that #UNITEDWeStand is the anthem of this project, supporting victims of painful tragedies together, united as Americans, Muslim or not.
On Penn’s campus, there is still work to be done to ward off the dregs of Islamophobia and what it represents; perhaps for many, as for Majid, faith will guide them through. “At the end of the day as a person rooted in my faith I think my job is to put in the effort and try to get people together and the result is in God’s hands.”