17 Years After 9/11, Can Muslim Students Count on Their Peers to Stand Up for Them?

By Kevin Singer; Laura Dahl; Matthew Mayhew, PhD; and Alyssa Rockenbach, PhD

It is hard to believe that 17 years have gone by since the events of Sept. 11, 2001. In reaction, in the months and years that followed, Islamophobia escalated across the U.S., including on college and university campuses.

In 2014, the Campus Religious and Spiritual Climate Survey, designed by Matthew J. Mayhew, PhD, a professor in educational administration at The Ohio State University, and Alyssa N. Rockenbach, PhD, a professor of higher education at North Carolina State University (NC State), found that only 46 percent of college students believed Muslims were accepted on their campuses. The following year, three Muslim students were murdered in Chapel Hill — an incident deemed a hate crime. Just a month later, Duke University reversed its decision to allow the Muslim call to prayer to broadcast from its historic chapel once a week, after evangelical minister Franklin Graham chided the administration for its decision and set off a firestorm of protest against the university.

Even today, Muslim students report being the targets of discrimination, bigotry, and violence. The threat only increased when President Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Ailya Vajid, the Muslim chaplain at both Carleton College and Macalester College in southern Minnesota, said that on the day after the election, Macalester’s campus felt like a funeral. “Students were crying, [some] were in shock. People were just in mourning,” she told The Chronicle of Higher Education.

But Islamophobia is not just an American phenomenon. It is pervasive across Euro-Western nations as well. In March 2017, letters were sent out across the U.K. declaring April 3 “Punish a Muslim Day.” It included a point system: 10 points for verbally abusing a Muslim, 25 for pulling the headscarf of a Muslim woman, all the way up to 1,000 points for burning or bombing a mosque.

As a result of these trends, some U.S. colleges and universities have engaged in intentional efforts over the last several years to make their campuses more welcoming and inclusive of Muslim students and other religious and non-religious minority groups. This has included creating spaces for spiritual expression, offering Halal and Kosher food options in cafeterias, providing chaplains and counseling support, and sponsoring interfaith events.

Other changes in policy, such as Duke’s recent decision to block students from choosing their own roommates their freshman year, are also likely to improve the campus climate for religious minority students. Eboo Patel, an Ismaili Muslim and founder and president of the nonprofit organization Interfaith Youth Core, contends that the policy will ensure that students come to understand their peers of different identities.

Though encouraging, many of these efforts by colleges and universities are institutionally driven and top-down in nature. The question remains as to whether students themselves are standing up for their fellow religious-minority peers when they experience discrimination and prejudice on campus on account of their beliefs.

Fortunately, recent findings from a national study on worldview diversity in higher education provide some insight. Led by two research teams at Ohio State and NC State, the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) surveyed more than 7,000 students at 122 colleges and universities at the end of their first year in college in the spring and fall of 2016.

Researchers found that if a non-Muslim student had at least one Muslim friend, they were more than twice as likely to stand up for someone of another worldview. The study also found that politically liberal students were almost twice as likely as politically conservative students to stand up for someone of another worldview, while those of non-Christian faiths were 20 percent more likely than Christians to stand up for someone of another worldview. It may be that students of historically marginalized identities, or in close proximity to those students, have more empathy for individuals experiencing discrimination.

For students who are standing up for their peers, which college experiences helped them to be better allies? IDEALS found that for every formal interfaith experience a student had, they were 20 percent more likely to stand up for someone of another worldview, and for every informal exchange a student had with peers of other worldviews (e.g., studying or eating together), they were 60 percent more likely to stand up for someone of another worldview. This is consistent with Pew Research Center data showing that religious groups tended to be rated more warmly on a “feeling thermometer” when survey respondents had established personal connections with people belonging to those groups.

These findings indicate that colleges and universities should do what they can to ensure students of varying worldviews are interacting with one another in meaningful ways. When this occurs, Muslim and other students of minority worldviews are met with increased appreciation and inclusion. Furthermore, it is more likely that if and when they do encounter discrimination, their peers will stand up for them.

These interactions could start as early as freshman orientation, when students have an opportunity to learn about and begin to appreciate the full scope of diversity that exists on campus. As our society and campuses become more diverse, it is clear that higher education professionals can make a significant difference in how Muslim and other religious-minority students experience college.

Kevin Singer is a PhD student in higher education at North Carolina State University. Laura Dahl is a PhD candidate in the higher education and student affairs program at The Ohio State University. Matthew J. Mayhew, PhD, is the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Educational Administration at The Ohio State University. Alyssa N. Rockenbach, PhD, is a professor of higher education at North Carolina State University.