By Naomi Eskenazi
WASHINGTON – During his first year of college, Ali Shafi was expecting to face challenges from his studies or homesickness. What he did not expect to face were the challenges of being a Muslim student trying to change a community at a predominantly Christian university.
Shafi described his first year at American being “protein deficient” as he struggled to find Halal food on campus.
“I was barely eating meat,” Shafi said. “I would occasionally go and eat Kosher food since most Muslims believe Halal food laws overlap with Kosher ones, but that was rare.”
However, according to students, mislabeling occurs frequently in the dining hall. In August a student posted a video on Facebook showing pork, a non-Kosher and non-Halal food, in the Kosher section of the dining hall.
“There was even crazy confusion over the Halal chicken at Elevation Burger because while those working at Elevation would say the chicken was Halal, some even saying the beef was too, an expired Halal certification from years ago was in plain view,” Shafi said.
Although the United States has a Christian majority, Islam is still the third largest. American University is a microcosm for this. American is a Methodist affiliated university, but still has a growing Muslim community.
In the past few years at American, there have been changes and renovations made to accommodate Muslim students on campus. Halal options are now offered in the school’s dining hall, and the prayer room located in the Kay Spiritual Life Center has been renovated this past year. These efforts were all led by American’s Muslim Students Association.
But according to the Muslim students interviewed, they are pleased that American has implemented these changes, but feel there is more work that needs to be done.
“I think most universities give enough Halal food access so they can pat themselves on the back and call themselves accommodating. I don’t want to downplay the strides the school has made to accommodate us, Halal food is an excellent first step, but food won’t make us feel secure and belonging,” Shafi said.
The assistant vice president of the Office of Campus Life, Amanda Taylor, responded to the issues presented by Muslim students.
“Though we’ve certainly made some strides, there remains much work to do to ensure our Muslim community on campus feels a full sense of belonging and inclusion here at AU,” Taylor said. “This year, we have worked with the MSA to support Ramadan meals, and have supported a mini-grant program led by several Muslim staff members to explore the American Muslim experience.”
According to students, another issue was the scheduling of this year’s final exam week which would overlap with the holiday Ramadan.
“We’ve worked with the provost to ensure faculty are aware of the timing of Ramadan and finals and work to be as accommodating as possible,” Taylor said, “Again, much remains to be done, but we look forward to continued collaboration and engagement with the Muslim community at AU.”
However, according to Muslim co-chaplain, Ghiyath Nakshbendi, American is as inclusive to the Muslim community as it is with other religions on campus.
“In all fairness, American University is extremely tolerant and is extremely caring of all students of all different religions,” Nakshbendi said. “They are very supportive to the Muslim Students Association, but within the rules. They don’t give them special treatment because the MSA is one of the thousands of clubs on campus.”
Muslim students make up 3% of the self-reported religions at American, according to data provided by the Kay Spiritual Life Center.
“As a minority religion my vision for AU is to really make Muslim students feel that they can thrive in a place and an environment where they belong, so they won’t have to transfer to another institution,” said MSA Director of Communications Sidi Traore.
Sociology professor and former director of Arab world studies, Randa Serhan, described Georgetown University and George Washington University as being models for how American should provide for its Muslim student body.
“The only thing American can do is open up space for dialogue, and the question is whether or not that space exists. What I hear from student organizers is that the space does not exist or is not as equitable compared to George Washington University and Georgetown,” Serhan said.
According to Shafi, Muslims with cultural, racial or ethnic identities often find their better spaces in other places such as the Turkish Cultural Club or the Students for Justice in Palestine.
President of the Turkish Cultural Club, Bayram Furat, said he feels that American is not an accommodating place for Muslim students, especially in regard to student led organizations.
“I appreciate the Halal food, but we need more than that. My ideal vision of AU is a school that treats its Muslim population and clubs with the same respect as it does its other cultural clubs and students,” Furat said.
“The Students for Justice in Palestine organization is faced with so much pushback from the students whenever they’re hosting an event or trying to spread information about the conflict,” senior Noura Moneimne said.
American has attempted to institute improvements in regard to diversity and inclusion at the university in response to racially motivated crimes on campus. The Center for Diversity and Inclusion was created as well as a mandatory freshman year course, AU Experience or AUx, that teaches students lessons on multiculturalism.
“AUx has a little piece on, ‘Is a woman in a veil oppressed? No, she’s not she’s also independent,’ and that’s a good start, but I haven’t seen anything much beyond that,” senior Sarah Soliman said.
Traore echoed other students in their appreciation for what American has implemented, but would like to see more direct involvement going forward.
“AU implementing Halal food and renovating the prayer room is a major step toward accommodating Muslim students and having their voices heard. However, I feel like AU needs to take initiative in protecting Muslim students who have to deal with islamophobia from ignorant people,” Traore said.