Opinion » Guest Commentary
Islam is a touchy subject. When I told my grandmother that my senior project in anthropology would be talking to Muslim students on campus about issues of identity and religion, she immediately told me, “I don’t know how you trust those Muslims or why you’re interested in them. Are you thinking of converting to Islam?” Sadly, I am getting more familiar with such statements, though they are one of the many motivating factors for my anthropological and political research this year.
Discussion and education about Islam and its cultural and political implications are often silent in our society, even with the extensive post-Sept. 11 media coverage of Islamic countries and the “War on Terror.” I was surprised, though, that an institution such as Ithaca College, with such extreme focus on “diversity,” has an apparently nonexistent Muslim student population. The ultimate purpose of my research was to determine why Muslims are not a visible group on the college’s campus and whether personal and religious identities make a difference in their formation as a group.
Over the fall semester, I spoke with a select group of Muslim students at the college and conducted multiple in-depth interviews to better understand why there was no clear space for Muslims at Ithaca. Any identity is certainly multifaceted, and in the case of my Muslim subjects, this was no different. Many Muslim students are very involved in their academics and other on-campus activities: Some are resident assistants, orientation leaders, athletes or members of different clubs.
Yet during each interview there was a constant emphasis on the lack of spiritual and religious identification in the student’s life, which was often present before the student came to college. After asking a series of questions regarding each interviewee’s religious background, I concluded that this lack of spiritual identification might stem from multiple sources. Some Muslim students noted that our campus does not have an adequate or accepted space for Islamic prayer, so they must go to Cornell or practice their faith individually. Others merely said that their religious identity did not play a large role in their life as a student and only regains importance when they were with their family.
Considering that religion often seems to become an afterthought when people go to college, Ithaca College has surprisingly vocal and active religious groups for Christians and Jews. The reoccurring theme of my research, however, was that students who identified themselves with Islam had very few ways of finding other Muslim students at the college with whom they could socialize.
I have decided to continue my work this semester using a more activist anthropological approach. I will be working directly with students and faculty to create increased opportunities for Muslims to meet and interact with each other, as well as to help educate the college community about their religion and cultures. The Muslim cultures minor program, through the Division of International and Interdisciplinary Studies, will be providing educational opportunities on campus this spring, such as movie nights that address issues of religion and identity, for all students at the college. The newly formed Arabic Club, in conjunction with the college’s Arabic language program, will also be starting its meetings soon. Through these institutional outlets, hopefully Ithaca’s currently silenced Muslim population will gain a stronger voice within the campus community.
Lindsay Pehmoeller is a senior politics and anthropology major. E-mail her at email@example.com.
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