I’m taking this time after Islam Awareness Week to reflect. Undoubtedly, we still live in an America suspicious of Muslims and in a city with police commissioners with a mission to make Muslims feel uncomfortable, according to recent reports. Despite this sentiment, and perhaps because of it, I believe that on Columbia’s little patch of green, Muslim students feel accepted. I am no spokesperson for everyone who identifies as Muslim, but I have reasons to be firm in this conviction.
I went to a tiny public high school in South Jersey. Graduating class? 175 students. Now, don’t get me wrong, I liked my high school. I liked it despite the fact that I had the pleasure of being the only Muslim there. Talk about awkward. It’s a good thing I liked being unique. It’s quite easy not to know someone’s name, even in a small school, but you know who everyone is talking about when they mention that “chick with the thing on her head.”
Imagine my surprise when, after years of being the only unripe apple in the bunch, I got to Columbia, looked around, and saw so many people like me. After recovering from my daze, I realized that I finally went to school with people who, while they didn’t look exactly like me or share the same ethnic, socioeconomic, or geographical background, knew something about my religion. And I’m not just talking about Muslims. Maybe I’m blocking it out, but I’m pretty sure that in three years here, no one has ever asked me in September, when we all haul our fans out of storage, whether I am “hot” (read: not aesthetically but temperature-wise since I don’t wear shorts and have a head covering). As other Columbia students who “wear” their religions—from Sikhs to Orthodox Jews—can attest, it is a less stressful existence when you know everyone isn’t staring at you because you’re dressed differently.
However, as students who aren’t “visibly” Muslim, or who don’t openly talk about their religion, can confirm, it’s not simply about being physically comfortable. That is why there is something to be said about the communities of Muslims that have been fostered here. Muslim students aren’t the Brady Bunch. We don’t all smile and hang out like a family on weekends. Like any group of people, we have internal issues of acceptance that we deal with. However, many have found someone to connect with. I have friends who have never identified as Muslims until they arrived here, and have found people who make them feel comfortable enough to share or explore their spirituality. Conversely, I have very religious friends who have learned that certain practices are not set in stone, that religion isn’t black and white. The diversity in our practices and walks of life doesn’t make us congeal together in similarity, but these differences allow us to find solidarity and friendship somewhere on campus, something that’s a credit to the distinctive admissions processes of our undergraduate schools.
There’s also the treatment from those who mentor and nurture us. For instance, many bosses won’t hesitate to let their students or employees break for Friday prayer services. And it’s encouraging to know people want to hear from you. During the 10th anniversary commemoration of 9/11, I was asked to recite a spoken word piece. I have never been hesitant about performing, but I still wondered how people would feel about a Muslim, one of only two student speakers, reciting a poem that was both honest about my patriotism and my concerns with American treatment of Muslims. However, not only did I not receive any negative crowd reaction, but Dean Avis Hinkson and many students also approached me afterward to thank me for my thoughts.
Now, I’m not saying the Columbia environment is perfect. There have been frustrating movements. Remember the “9/11 mosque” phase? I can’t tell you how frustrated the situation made many Muslims on campus feel, watching peers digest Fox’s smear campaign against Park 51’s community center. Yet, in a time when Muslims are rarely fortunate anywhere, I’m convinced Columbia Muslims have got a decent life. If my biggest complaint from the past three years is having disagreed with how my classmates interpret the Quran, I’m living pretty sexy.