Although the five students and two professors who served as panelists for Thursday’s panel on “Islam, Identity, and Being Muslim in America” denied the possibility that their voices should represent the entire Muslim community, their insights and experiences nevertheless shed light on some common themes that pervade the question of what it means to be an American Muslim.
The panelists – Religion professor Tariq al-Jamil, Sociology/Anthropology professor Farha Ghannam, Humzah Soofi ’10, Omar Ramadan ’08, Urooj Khan ’10, Sofia Saiyed ’10, and Ailya Vajid ’09 – came from different countries and backgrounds. Some were the only Muslims in their neighborhood, others grew up in areas that were home to a vibrant Muslim community.
Despite these differences, the students agreed that coming to Swarthmore has affected the way that they perceive their relationship to Islam.
Coming from a Muslim community, Soofi associated the practice of Islam with the student community, and when he got to Swarthmore he found himself “looking for that void to fill.” The small size of the MSA created a different kind of experience and meant finding new aspects to “things I used to go through the motions with.” For Saiyed, coming to Swarthmore also afforded an opportunity to think about practices that had been second nature at home. Joining the MSA, she says, “challenged [her] beliefs” by putting her religious practice into direct contact with the practices of others.
At the same time, both students and faculty were reluctant to think of Islam as something that could define their entire identity. Identity, says Ghannam, “is never something static that you discover once and for all…[it’s] linked to context.” Al-Jamil agreed, pointing out that although it can be useful to talk about ‘identity’, it is also a “modern notion that is contested.”
Students echoed this ambivalence towards identity, and talked about the difficulty of feeling called upon to be “ambassadors” of Islam when dealing with other students. “I don’t want everything I say to become ‘The Muslim Perspective,” says Ramadan. “I don’t want that responsibility, nor do I think I deserve it.”
The role of ambassador, says Soofi, was “forced upon” him. But although being expected to be a spokesperson for your religion is not always a welcome burden, Soofi also believes that being put in that position “was an opportunity to learn and grow.”
Al-Jamil addresses the issue of Muslim “identity” in his classes by trying to distance his work as a teacher of Islam from his identity as a Muslim. He also tries to be sensitive to Muslims in his class and avoid turning them into ambassadors. “Muslims,” he says, “shouldn’t be expected to teach other students.”
Khan, who had taken one of al-Jamil’s classes, appreciated this approach. “[We read] material for which I was the audience,” she says. “I got to learn about myself.”
One question addressed to the panel was on the issue of troublesome misconceptions about Islam that the panelists had encountered. Responses ranged from the idea that all Muslim women are oppressed, to people who think of Islam is monolithic and unified, something simple “that you could explain over a cup of coffee,” as Ghannam put it.
Students also brought up the issue of feeling antagonized on campus. Khan recalled an incident last year when the Phoenix ran an anti-Muslim ad, while others reminisced about a lecture that had raised eyebrows and problematic questions. Under these circumstances, Soofi observes that he has to “ward off all these people that are talking smack.” Khan echoed this feeling of personal responsibility: “It’s hard to be on the defensive.”
The best response to prejudice and misunderstanding, all agreed, was more education, both for Muslims and others. More communication between people of different faiths, although it can’t solve all problems, will at least facilitate learning. When asked about the possibility of having only Muslim acquaintances, Ramadan answered, “that, I think, is stupid. You get so closed-minded.”
The student panelists also talked about the role of Islam and Swarthmore’s Muslim community in their daily lives. Although (as moderator Mufal Dahodwala ’08 pointed out) no one spoke specifically about their faith lives, all the students experienced religion in their life to some degree.
However, they also agreed that there is no one “Islam” in which they all participated. “There are different ways you can be close to Islam,” says Saiyed. Soofi agreed, saying that he experienced Islam on an “everyday learning basis”, and felt “closest to faith just out and about, looking at trees.” Ramadan summed up everyone’s feelings when he said that Islam was “not learning about it, [but] being it…with other Muslims, just being.”