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February 08, 2017 - Image 12

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Between Two Worlds:


Muslim Students’ Association Carves its Place on Campus

Wednesday, February 8, 2017 // The Statement
Wednesday, February 8, 2017 // The Statement


here is no mosque or designated
prayer room. A reminder must
be sent out each week specify-

ing when and where to meet on Fridays
so that the prayers can be held. Efforts
have been made, I’m told, to secure a
stable location, but to no avail. Jumuah
— the mandatory ritual prescribed by the
faith — on the University of Michigan’s
campus is an unknown quantity.

I’ve been a handful of times — more

than five, probably less than 10. I know
this isn’t what my parents want to hear.
I am still a practicing Muslim, a product
of exasperating weekly Sunday school
and interminable Qur’an reading les-
sons. The faith is ingrained in me, even
if I’m not particularly devout. Save for a
blatantly Arabic first name, I am not out-
wardly Muslim, nor do I go out of my way
to identify as such. Rather, it’s an internal

Shame throbbing in my mind, I sit on

the floor of the Anderson Room in the
Michigan Union for the Muslim Stu-
dents’ Association’s — the largest Mus-
lim student organization on campus
— weekly jumuah, cross-legged, my left
foot gradually falling asleep, listening
to the imam. He is the Chaplain, Shaykh
Mohammed Ishtiaq, and he’s a jolly, fully
bearded man, like a dark-skinned Eric
Wareheim. The ceiling is higher than
most actual mosques I’ve been in, and the
guys around me are impressively invest-
ed in the sermon. Unlike my childhood
memories of jumuah, there are no whis-
pered conversations about basketball
or the conspicuous phone usage under-
neath crossed legs; the brothers are rapt.
Far behind me and separated by a wide
chasm of carpet, the sisters sit, identical.

In this post-election climate, the role

of the Muslim student activist is in flux.
There is an urgent immediacy to, well, do
something. A few days after the election,
the Islamic Center of Ann Arbor received
an anonymous letter proclaiming that

our then President-elect will “do to you
Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.”
Earlier this week, the prayer rugs in a
reflection room in the Union were found
desecrated by urine. And in the past two
weeks, President Donald Trump enacted
a ban on refugees, citizens, green-card
holders, and more from seven Muslim-
majority countries — it is, for all intents
and purposes, a ban on Muslims.

Estimated at about 150 active mem-

bers, the MSA functions primarily as
a social group for its patrons, but in
the past few months, its hand has been
almost forced: activism and outreach is
now a necessity. To be sure, the feeling of
hostility is not a newfound development:
hate crimes against American Muslims
rose by 78 percent in 2015, the most
since 9/11. This environment is not some
abrupt occurrence, but instead a gradual
reality that has been gestating for quite
some time.

Ashamed of my own reluctance to

participate in activism, I began to recon-
sider my relationship with my identity. I
wondered about my own insecurities and
considered the possible identity crisis of
the MSA, the struggle between function-
ing as a social group and a space of activ-
ism and outreach.

Where, then, does the MSA situate

itself on campus? Is it as a space for soli-
darity among Muslims, or a vehicle for
more evocative activism? What is the
current state of Muslim student leader-
ship in the face of a politically legitimized
hatred and bigotry? For people like me
— people who have, for some reason or
another, shunned an integral part of
their identity — these questions present a
more pressing issue: the identity politics
of activism, both public and personal.

In its current iteration, the MSA is

structured like a genealogy tree of sorts.
At its head sits the president, a member of
its seven-person executive board. These
are the ones who make group decisions,

plan initiatives, and represent the orga-
nization. Each board member is assigned
two “directors,” who manage day-to-day
operations. The directors, too, are sub-
tended by lesser organization members,
and so on.

The weekly operations of MSA are

fairly standardized. On Monday nights,
the group holds a small event called
“Mini-Qiyam.” A qiyam is a student-led
lecture that ranges from religious educa-
tion to application. Tuesday nights hosts
a monthly “Sisters’ Book Club.” MSA
meetings are on Wednesday nights, in
which the board discuss make organi-
zational decisions. Thursday nights are
weekly lectures from guests or the Chap-
lains, and Friday afternoons are jumuah
prayers. Informal socials happen fre-

Mohammad Shaikh, a business sopho-

more and member of the board, says he
joined the MSA for a sense of community.
He’s a good-looking, articulate kid from
Ann Arbor and Jackson, Michigan.

I can’t help but ask: how has this easy

structure been disrupted — if at all — by
the election and the subsequent events?

Shaikh admits that, while day-to-day

operations haven’t changed, the MSA has
recently revved up its focus on initiatives
and outreach. Less than a week after
the election, the MSA hosted an out-
door prayer on the Diag, planned as an
impromptu act of solidarity for the Mus-
lim women who were allegedly attacked
and harassed earlier that week. More
than 200 students and faculty members
across campus. Non-Muslim attend-
ees formed a symbolic ring of protec-
tion around the Muslim attendees, who
prayed Isha, the final daily prayer, on the
grass in front of the campus’ American
flag. I look down as he mentions the num-
ber of non-Muslim students who attend-
ed, hoping he won’t ask if I was there.

“We were very happy and pleasantly

surprised by how many people showed

up,” Shaikh said. “We did not think it was
going to blow up that much. From the
MSA side, we felt very blessed.”

Other recent initiatives include Wol-

verine Guard, a buddy system meant to
aid people who are uncomfortable walk-
ing home at night.

An internally controversial develop-

ment began as another well-intentioned
act of solidarity. A female MSA member
from Wayne State University suggested
to board members a “Kufis in Solidar-
ity” movement. Kufis are small hats that
Muslim men often wear to the mosque
(similar to a yarmulke), and in a show of
support, men would wear them to stand
with women who wore the hijab.

But among MSA — particularly within

the sisters — this idea wasn’t received
warmly. Many claimed this was either
unsustainable, or simply tokenism; men
had the luxury of doing this for a week
or two, while hjiabi women carried this
burden for life.

Mariam Doudi, a Business sophomore

and MSA director, was indifferent. She’s
short and wears a hijab.

Within the MSA sisters’ group chat,

there was a considerable amount of back-
lash according to Doudi. Along with the
men wearing kufis in solidarity, there
was a parallel idea being floated of non-
hijab-wearing sisters also donning the
headscarf for some time. This sugges-
tion, Doudi says, was possibly even more

“I feel like it was sweet, but I don’t

know how effective it would have been,”
Doudi says. “You’re not really going to
feel how we feel if you wear it for like a
week or whatever. In the end, we’re still
going to be a minority again.”

In the wake of attacks on “visibly Mus-

lim” people, the idea of others being able
to categorize them as such on first sight
— caused consternation in the MSA.

For former MSA member Mishaal

Khan, the burden of the hijab is one

of always having to “be on;” it’s a
stripped-down, granular version of
respectability politics, and represent-
ing the entirety of one’s faith is a tire-
some weight.

“If I mess up, it’s not going to be, ‘Oh,

that girl messed up,’” she says. “It’s
going to be, ‘Oh, that Muslim messed

On a cold evening, I find myself

once again in the embrace of Allah.
Each Thursday, the MSA holds weekly
halaqa, talks or meetings meant to dis-
cuss aspects of the faith that pertain
to campus life. I hadn’t been to one in
years. I pass a Bible reading group in
the room next door on the way in.

The room, filled with rows of chairs,

is sparsely populated: one forlorn-look-
ing guy in a beard and a beanie scroll-
ing through his phone, and six or seven
women chatting in the front row. I take
a seat in the back, alone, and pull out
my notebook.

“Assalamu-Alaikum, man. Humza.”

I look up to see the kid in the beanie
extending his hand in the standard
Islamic greeting. I respond instinc-

“Walaikum-Assalam. Nabeel,” I say,

smiling and shaking his hand.

“Mind if I sit next to you? Not many

other guys here.”

“No, of course, go for it.”
He sits down next to me, and I

become aware, not for the last time,
of the barely perceptible disconnect
between men and women in this room.

More people file in and I’m still one

of the few guys, while many girls in
hijab, some not, keep filling out the
rows. Once the speaker arrives and is
introduced, I realize there might be a

Melanie Elturk is the CEO of Haute

Hijab, the country’s largest ven-
dor of fashionable hijabs and clothes
designed for Muslim women. She
delivers today’s talk: “The Next Gen-
eration of American Muslims: Defining
Our Role and Reclaiming Our Faith.”
A Midwestern native, she was a for-
mer civil rights lawyer in both Chicago
and Dubai before building the compa-
ny with her husband. She’s energetic,
bright and exceedingly well-spoken,
with a disarmingly cheerful smile. Her
head is, of course, covered.

“Our parents, we owe them a great

deal of credit,” she says. “It’s some-
thing fantastic that we, as their chil-
dren, in this generation, are now taking
the torch from them. We’re in this
beautifully set-up circumstance where
we can compound on the foundation
they’ve laid for us.”

I find this an odd place to begin.

Indeed, for the rest of the halaqa,
Elturk repeatedly references her father
and family relationships. I get the sense
that the brand of Muslim activism she’s

prescribing is one that’s still tethered
to an overtone of traditionalism.

I take a break to survey the room.

In front of me is a kid registering for
courses on his laptop. To my left, I
can’t help but notice Humza Shaukat
frantically sending out WhatsApp mes-
sages asking fellow brothers to show
up. Each carefully worded text begins
with a courteous “Salam.”

On the other side of the room, where

the chairs are separated by a row of
space in the middle, the sisters in hijab
are rapt. Their faces are adorned with
visible admiration and respect: the
dearth of hjiabi role models. I hear
Elturk ask the crowd, “You need to ask
yourself: what can I contribute to soci-
ety — in order to make it better, in order
to change it for the better, and bring
the light and the beauty of our faith
into this society?”

Elturk’s speech is peppered with

Arabic phrases and snippets of the
Qur’an. (I suffer the occasional PTSD-
flashback to my Sunday school night-
mares each time I hear it.) Her talk
ranges from the trials and tribulations
of scarf design to pleas for increased
Muslim representation in creative
fields, to the particulars of finding a
spouse. “This is the age when you’re
going to find the person you marry.”
If my mom didn’t hold that same ludi-
crous notion, I would have laughed out

When Elturk opens the floor for

questions, I observe the nagging issues
plaguing the MSA members. One girl
gets right to the obvious question: In
the context of feminist discourse, how
do we respond to people who say ask
if the hijab is reinforcing patriarchal

“Just know that our deen [faith] is an

asset, not a burden,” Elturk answers.
“You should never apologize for it, and
take ownership of your hijab.”

She recounts a college anecdote of

walking to class: there are two guys
catcalling every woman passing by,
but they abruptly fall silent as she
walks past. She says this was a sign of
empowerment, that these boys real-
ized from her hijab she was a person of
faith. I recognize the conviction of her
story, and, more importantly, she — as
do all women — know more than I.

While the girls ask questions regard-

ing faith and social activism, the guys
that raise their hands seem interested
more in Elturk’s business. Elturk was
not didactic, like the Islamic lectures
of my youth or the sermons at Friday
jumuah, but more conversational. Her
message is one of liberation through
both Islam and American entrepre-
neurship — two concepts so often per-
ceived as societally incompatible.

As I put my jacket on to leave, Elturk

is talking to a group of sisters. I am sit-

uated in an odd place. Here is a commu-
nity that is not mine, one that I actively
rejected, but is nonetheless one I’m sup-
posed to be a part of. Once I step outside
of the League, into the frigid air and light
snow, I will have returned and retreat-
ed, to the comfort of basketball and The
Michigan Daily and meat that isn’t halal
and my “real” friends. I am both an out-
sider and member, strangely connected to
and longing for this world I’m supposed
to be part of.

Tina Al-khersan, an LSA senior, is not a

hjiabi and no longer an MSA board mem-
ber. She is, however, Muslim, and her per-
sonal brand of activism has now extended
beyond the MSA. She now serves on the
LSA Campus Climate Committee and
is an Executive Board member for the
Michigan Refugee Assistance Program.

Al-khersan is well-versed in activism

outside of the MSA. Growing up in North-
ville, Michigan, she says she wasn’t proud
of her identity and fought to hide it from
others. In addition to joining MSA her
freshman year, she also became a member
of Muslims and Jews, an interfaith group
between Muslims and Jews on campus.

“You don’t necessarily have to be part of

a ‘Muslim’ organization or ‘activist’ orga-
nization to be a Muslim activist,” she says.
“Some of my proudest moments being a
‘Muslim activist’ have been talking about
my faith one-on-one with friends or even
strangers. To me, the best type of educa-
tion occurs when we open up and talk
about what our faith means to us.”

Activism is not in the foundational

DNA of the MSA. It has historically been
a social organization, and only recently
have advocacy and outreach reemerged
as an integral part of its mission.

For some, Islam itself provides a moral

foundation and path toward social jus-
tice. Shaikh and Al-khersan both say the

Prophet Muhammad was the world’s
greatest social activist, and the Qur’an
itself calls for standing up to injustice.

As with all groups, there are the draw-

backs of social pressures and envies.
Shaikh admits the MSA has a history of
members looking down on those who may
be less observant, or being unforgiving to
religious missteps. It’s one of the reasons
people are hesitant to join, Shaikh says,
and that’s something I can attest to.

But the election has galvanized the

organization. The members are unified in
their desires to support Muslim women,
both hijabi and not, and want to destig-
matize their faith as an un-American
“other.” When you begin to tell people
that not all Muslims are terrorists, you
run the risk of becoming a cliché. This
isn’t the most complex line of analysis,
and it’s been a thudding, repeated refrain
in any Muslim’s life, to the point of genu-
ine irritation. But it’s necessary.

I find myself questioning the point of

it all. My natural reflex to casual bigotry
is self-deprecation and sarcasm. I tend to
make a joke out of everything. I’d like to
ask them: What’s the point of becoming
a student activist when activism is sim-
ply a social yoke? When you’re already
an “other,” when you’re already the per-
son who’s always described in the sec-
ondhand as “some [insert ethnicity here]
guy,” when, in the eyes of the majority,
your identity has already been whittled
down from a complex, dynamic entity to
the checkbox on an employment applica-
tion — aren’t you just playing into their

I can’t count the number of times I’ve

run through this in my head — especial-
ly at college, where everything is pro-
nounced, heightened, politicized. I’ve
always come down (smugly) on the side
of the identity organization holdout (read:


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