An Ithaca College student is campaigning for a new position on campus for a Muslim religious leader, striving for what she believes is a change that could create a more supportive and inclusive campus environment.
Sophomore Farwa Shakeel, the Student Governance Council senate chair spearheading the initiative, said she believes more Muslim students will come together with the presence of an imam, or mosque prayer leader, on campus. In addition to the student-led effort, the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish chaplains are supporting the campaign by working on a proposal that calls for a position for a Muslim chaplain.
Although Shakeel said there is not a large number of student practitioners of Islam on campus, the Islamic faith is growing globally at a fast rate. Islam has the youngest median age among its practitioners compared to other religious groups, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, which found in 2015 that the median age of a practicing Muslim is 24. There are approximately 10 to 15 students who practice regularly at the college, Shakeel said. She said although there is no official Muslim club on campus, a number of these students are trying to start a student group called Muslims and Allies.
Ideas are being proposed, Shakeel said, to establish the position on campus. She said an imam could be brought to the college through a fellowship program, as a faculty member, or as a permanent imam to take the position. Shakeel said the decision of who will fill the position depends on the most accessible and feasible option, which is most reasonably a faculty member or an imam whose sole job it is to serve the Muslim community so students will have a consistent leader.
With a stable religious leader on campus, Muslim students will be able to find the community they are looking for, Shakeel said. She said she believes Muslim students are hesitant to practice their faith at the college because there is no leader or formal Muslim community.
Shakeel said having a consistent Muslim religious leader on campus could help support Muslim students during Donald Trump’s presidency, especially in light of Trump’s travel ban that blocked travel of people from six Muslim–majority countries who do not have a “bona fide relationship” with someone in the United States. The ban expired in September and was replaced with new regulations.
“I think right now in the political environment, it’s important for the college to support their students,” she said.
Additionally, she said a Muslim leader is important for prospective students so they can evaluate if they will be able to carry out their religious practices at the college.
The presence of Muslim faith leaders on college campuses is growing across the country. Schools such as Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as well as approximately 40 other private universities in the country, have hired Muslim chaplains to support college Muslim communities.
Shakeel said she came up with this idea in the summer and anticipates at least a couple of years for a turnaround. Jason Freitag, associate professor in the Department of History, is assisting Shakeel with facilitating conversations between the faith leaders on campus, some of whom are also clergy members at Cornell University. They are extending the conversation to Syracuse University and Cornell University, both of which have imams on campus, to see the models other institutions use for religious support for their Muslim students. Cornell most recently introduced an imam to their campus in August 2017.
“I think it’ll happen, but it’s a matter of having conversations and seeing what the best solution for right now is,” Freitag said. “In a way, it’s not a bad thing that it might take a while, because to really pay attention to what’s happening and to get a clear sense of what needs to be met is a good thing.”
Lauren Goldberg, executive director of Ithaca College Hillel, said the chaplains at Muller Chapel, including leaders from Hillel and the Catholic and Protestant communities, meet frequently to discuss how the needs of students can be addressed and are working with the college to institutionalize a position for a Muslim faith leader. Goldberg said the administration has been supportive of the idea.
Goldberg said the chaplains are putting together a proposal detailing the goals of the chapel, which will be given to Rosanna Ferro, vice president of the Division of Student Affairs and Campus Life, who is in charge of supervising the chapel. The proposal addresses requests from students and chaplains, including the push for a long-term Muslim religious leader.
“We’re hoping to try to identify somebody in the immediate that’s not necessarily a long-term solution, while a long-term, sustainable solution is found by the college,” Goldberg said.
She said she is not aware of any local imams and that options such as a graduate students or short-term faculty members taking the role may not be fulfilling for students due to their temporary nature. She said a tenured faculty member would be ideal.
Although there is no constant Muslim religious leader on campus, a group of five students, including sophomore Syed Fardin Ahmed, convene every Friday for prayer services with Raquib Zaman, professor emeritus in the Department of Finance and International Business, and Moustafa AbuELFadl, assistant professor in the Department of Finance and International Business, Ahmed said.
AbuELFadl said the group does not have a large turnout due to the lack of awareness that these services are occurring, in addition to the general lack of awareness on campus regarding Muslim culture and events. He also said that not as many students or professors attend the sessions because of time conflicts with classes. Due to the low attendance, he is hesitant about bringing in someone specifically for the task of leading Muslim services if not many students are present.
“We could,” he said. “Before we do it, we might want to do the buildup. But it’s not a bad idea in the future.”
Ahmed said he still finds it difficult to practice Islam on campus due to the large time commitment and lack of a consistent group.
“If we have a particular leader, we could hold more events where more people show up,” Ahmed said. “I feel like people want to learn more, even if they don’t have time to practice their religion. So I think with a chaplain that has an extensive knowledge — not only in Islam, but in other religions — a lot of people from other, different religions can learn.”
Correction: In the print edition of this article, the photo caption incorrectly stated that Cornell University had recently hired an imam. The imam was brought to campus by the Diwan Foundation, a Cornell Muslim alumni organization, not hired directly by the university.