Sanctity at DU for its Muslim Students

Education, News Writing, Published

The following was published in November 2017 in the DU Clarion. Read it here

“Terrorism knows no religion,” said Imam Shafi (Masjid Abu Bakr) at the Jummah Prayer in the Driscoll Student Center, Friday November 3rd. The prayer, lasting just under an hour and co-sponsored by the University of Denver’s Muslim Student Association (MSA or DUMSA), consisted, partially, of a 30-minute lecture by Imam Shafi, wherein he talked briefly of the history of Islam, the prophets, the strive towards peace within Islamic devotionalism, and Islam’s foundational nature to the historical development of the United States. Yet, despite the ease with which he conveyed pious practice, he spoke defensively regarding what is considered true Islam, which made apparent the prejudice, misconceptions, and alienation that many American Muslims feel in contemporary U.S.

Since Trump’s election, the majority of U.S. Muslims view “Trump as unfriendly toward Muslim Americans” as shown by the Pew Research Center and the study conducted from January 23 – May 2, 2017. According to various other studies and articles, a climate of discrimination has surfaced in regards to Muslim Americans, and specifically since Trump’s election. Issues such as Trump’s attempts at travel bans and his near-repeal of DACA undoubtedly contribute to three-quarters of U.S. Muslims’ feelings that “there is ‘a lot’ of discrimination against Muslims in the U.S” and to 68 percent of U.S. Muslims’ feelings of worry regarding Trump. Despite this, Imam Shafi, as well as other Muslim Americans, believe strongly in the sentiment: “we are not part of America, we are America.”

How, then, do these issues affect a campus’s internal “climate?” More specifically, is DU truly creating an “Inclusively Excellent” environment for its Muslim students, a student population who may be faced with religious or racial prejudice? Further, how much can a college campus really do when it comes to protecting its students?

In a letter to the editor of The Clarion, published January 17, 2016, it was stated that DU’s administration received emails toward the end of 2015 regarding the campus’s “racial climate”: “one of the most recent on December 21st reassures the University’s Muslim community that DU will strive to be inclusively excellent and encourage ‘openness to new ideas, challenges to the status quo and compassion when discussing challenging topics.’”

According to Alia Reza, President of DU’s Muslim Student Association, the DU administration still has a ways to go in creating a truly “inclusively excellent” environment. Throughout her life she has experienced various kinds of racism and prejudice: due to her “Latina appearance,” she has been told on multiple occasions to “go back to Mexico,” though her Arabic name put her on the no-fly list after the September 11th attacks. However, in her introduction to DU, she felt comfortable among her peers in the Humanities and Social Sciences: “when I first started, I thought, ‘wow, this is great, people actually know what they’re talking about.’”

Despite her comfortability within certain areas of DU’s campus, her feelings of religious persecution are not entirely absent while at DU. “I really want to stress,” Reza says, “this happens mostly online where, after something happens in the world, people – especially recently, in the last few years – have felt like it’s okay to go online and directly say things…to me specifically, as well as our organization – the Muslim Student Association.”

She describes an incident regarding the Paris attacks: afterwards, she received comments on her Facebook page from people who found random quotes from the Quran regarding violence, and, taken out of context, attempted to use these quotes as proof to her that Islam is a violent religion. Further, after the recent Vegas attack, a similar situation occurred: “that was an old, white man, but this still happens where people [went] on the MSA Facebook page and comment[ed] racist things.”

While she says she feels a comfortability with other affinity groups on campus and has been invested in the MSA’s efforts to create alliances, encourage education of Islam, and promote awareness around understanding issues such as DACA, she remains unshielded from racism and religious persecution. “They really do, on DU’s campus,” she says, “use online as a platform for those kinds of things. And it usually comes from students.”

“I definitely like that movement – the DU sanctuary movement – and I think that even if it doesn’t change anything on an actual, legal level, the fact that DU would be labeled as a sanctuary campus would promote the safety and sanctuary of our students by their race, religion, background…[and] would be beneficial to minorities in general on this campus, because [then], we wouldn’t constantly feel like we’re about to be kicked out, we’re about to get attacked. Because we know that if those things were to happen, we’d be protected, so it would change the social atmosphere, and for that reason I definitely think we should do it,” says Reza.

In an interview with Frank Tuitt, the Senior Advisor to the Chancellor and Provost on Diversity and Inclusion, Tuitt states in response to the inquisition of DU’s label as sanctuary campus: “the focus here has been on, ‘let’s provide as much support and let’s make available accessible resources that go above and beyond what any sanctuary campus is doing in this country’…there has been a commitment to be the model in that way. And so, it’s less about what we call it, and more about what we do.”

While the social climate at DU appears to require more attention before Muslim students feel entirely accepted, the policies and infrastructure have already been improved significantly in just two years, according to the Campus Climate Report that was published in 2015, which details specific past recommendations to continue creating a truly welcoming and inclusive campus.

Frank Tuitt addressed a number of these recommendations and where they are currently in terms of their implementation status, speaking to the greater racial climate at DU, as well as to the external climate of the U.S.

Tuitt describes DU’s policy changes towards Inclusive Excellence since Chancellor Chopp’s arrival: “since Chancellor Chop came, we reorganized our diversity leadership, where the Center for Multicultural Excellence merged with Campus Life to create this new division of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence and so, most of the student-related aspects of campus life emerge out of that office. And then we created an Office of Diversity and Inclusion that would focus more on the faculty side of the house, so we really support the academic units in their efforts to diversify.”

Though many policy changes have been made since 2015 in various areas at DU, Tuitt’s office focuses mainly on the intellectual and academic aspects of IE: “so, a lot of what we do supports students, but indirectly.”

According to Tuitt, the Faculty Senate partnered with the Office of Teaching and Learning at DU a few years ago in efforts to imbed diversity and IE into the curriculum, passing an initiative that said, “they would do everything in their power to create inclusive learning environments in the classroom,” Tuitt said. This includes, among other policy and infrastructural changes, a Teaching and Learning series offered every third Thursday to provide faculty with opportunities to reflect on their pedagogical practices.

Additionally, since 2015 – according to Tuitt – the Office of Equal Opportunity and Biased Incidents Response Team has been more actively engaged on campus, to allow for students to report biased incidents when they do occur.

According to Alia Reza and other Muslim students on campus, DU administration still falls short when it comes to providing the kinds of resources and policies necessary to provide justice for racist or prejudice actions. Reza said: “what’s interesting about DU…[is that] people will report instances of racism and prejudice and say ‘hey this happened,’ and DU will say ‘okay we’re going to take this into account, we’re going to do something about it,’ and two months later nothing’s been done. And it’s like, I mean, you can be that person who would constantly follow up, constantly be in their face about it, but the problem is, you shouldn’t have to be that person. Right? DU should just step up and do something; the climate’s not going to change.”

Though feelings of discontent still pervade among the Muslim student population, many believe that DU’s “racial climate,” policies, and infrastructure have improved since 2015 in support of a more inclusively excellent campus. For instance, Reza discusses how the #SupportDACA posters that were posted around campus made her feel as though she was in an environment of those who understand and care.

Additionally, DU efforts to create acceptance specifically for its Muslim students has improved; the efforts made by Sodexo during Ramadan to provide meals for Muslim students to break their fast before and after dining hall hours has provided support for the general feeling that DU has, indeed, developed significantly into a more inclusive campus. Despite this, Reza emphasized that though Sodexo was “extremely helpful and we couldn’t have succeeded without them…the MSA Eboard did the vast majority of work on this.” The Eid-al-Adha Dinner, hosted by the MSA last year – one of the two main holidays in Islam – had a great turnout and was similarly supported by Sodexo.

In addition to support from specific infrastructural components at DU, support from staff and faculty has played a huge part in Muslim students’ feeling of inclusion and acceptance at DU.

“But, then again,” says Reza, “there’s sort of this hovering of DU not really being a sanctuary campus yet, so there is still that fear going around of what would happen if somebody told this group of students to leave – would DU protect them or would they not? So, there is still this feeling of unease like DU [should] try to step up and quell fears.”

Just as these opinions and feelings of DU’s inadequacy are valid, so too are DU’s legitimate efforts to protect its students. Tuitt clarifies: “careful consideration was absolutely given [to the labeling of DU as a sanctuary campus] and [DU’s] been a part of every opportunity to publicly state our support. I think, and this is my speculation, that the decision to not specifically use ‘sanctuary campus’ as a label was a strategic one, weighing both the costs and benefits of going in that direction, and in the end, I think because of going in that direction, we’re in a much better place to provide the types of supports and services and resources.”

Since the 2015 report, DU’s infrastructure and resources are more advanced and DU’s administration has the capacity to be more responsive than before, according to Tuitt. In the end, a decision was made to focus on providing the best support for DU’s students, which involved focusing on developing greater access to resources than on focusing solely on a label. Even still, “the racial climate outside of DU has been significantly worse,” says Tuitt, so it is hard to determine if the climate report recommendations and their implementations have made significant change in DU’s racial climate. “Any progress that we might have been able to make has been undermined by the external environment,” he says. “There’s been so many things happening externally that impact how we experience campus life here that it would be unfair to try to isolate and assess whether or not we’ve made progress solely on what’s happened here.”

According to Reza, “I find that with [the] administration…they say they’ll do something about it but when you actually report it, nothing really gets done. And I understand that there is kind of a limit on what they can do, especially if the act is hatred but not necessarily illegal, but even then, I think there needs to be a greater effort from DU administration to not be afraid to…publicly announce: ‘hey, this happened, and this is why it’s not okay.’ I think a lot of times it just goes under the radar; people don’t realize how often it happens on this campus because no one really announces it and, as bad as this sounds, I think people shouldn’t be afraid to put on display that somebody did this, even if you’re not using a name.”

Still, the interaction of external and internal climate has been a leading factor in students’ perception of campus experience, according to Tuitt: “I can’t overemphasize how much the external environment is shaping what is happening internally, that the climate in this country is arguably the worst it’s been in a long time and it’s hard for any institution to provide a buffer from it,” says Tuitt.

Despite improvements in policy, infrastructure, resource availability, and the general cultural climate, DU still has improvements to be made to create an environment where its Muslim students – and all its students – feel as though they are part of a truly welcoming and inclusively excellent educational environment.

“My general sense is that we still have students that experience isolation, we still have students who are struggling to find authentic, culturally relevant and affirming experiences that validate their presence here,” says Tuitt. “I’d like to believe there are less of those students than before, but the fact that some still remain means that our work is not done.”

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