There is no mosque or designated prayer room. A reminder must be sent out each week specifying 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 lessons. The faith is ingrained in me, even if I’m not particularly devout. Save for a blatantly Arabic first name, I am not outwardly Muslim, nor do I go out of my way to identify as such. Rather, it’s an internal flame.
Shame throbbing in my mind, I sit on the floor of the Anderson Room in the Michigan Union for the Muslim Students’ Association’s — the largest Muslim 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 invested in the sermon. Unlike my childhood memories of jumuah, there are no whispered conversations about basketball or the conspicuous phone usage underneath 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 members, 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 reconsider my relationship with my identity. I wondered about my own insecurities and considered the possible identity crisis of the MSA, the struggle between functioning as a social group and a space of activism and outreach.
Where, then, does the MSA situate itself on campus? Is it as a space for solidarity among Muslims, or a vehicle for more evocative activism? What is the current state of Muslim student leadership 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 organization. Each board member is assigned two “directors,” who manage day-to-day operations. The directors, too, are subtended 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 education to application. Tuesday nights hosts a monthly “Sisters’ Book Club.” MSA meetings are on Wednesday nights, in which the board discuss make organizational decisions. Thursday nights are weekly lectures from guests or the Chaplains, and Friday afternoons are jumuah prayers. Informal socials happen frequently.
Mohammad Shaikh, a business sophomore 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 outdoor prayer on the Diag, planned as an impromptu act of solidarity for the Muslim women who were allegedly attacked and harassed earlier that week. More than 200 students and faculty members across campus. Non-Muslim attendees formed a symbolic ring of protection 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 number of non-Muslim students who attended, 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 Wolverine Guard, a buddy system meant to aid people who are uncomfortable walking home at night.
An internally controversial development began as another well-intentioned act of solidarity. A female MSA member from Wayne State University suggested to board members a “Kufis in Solidarity” 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 backlash 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 suggestion, Doudi says, was possibly even more inflammatory.
“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 Muslim” 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 representing the entirety of one’s faith is a tiresome 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 up.’”
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 discuss 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-looking guy in a beard and a beanie scrolling 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 instinctively.
“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 reason.
Melanie Elturk is the CEO of Haute Hijab, the country’s largest vendor of fashionable hijabs and clothes designed for Muslim women. She delivers today’s talk: “The Next Generation of American Muslims: Defining Our Role and Reclaiming Our Faith.” A Midwestern native, she was a former civil rights lawyer in both Chicago and Dubai before building the company 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 something fantastic that we, as their children, 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 messages 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 society — 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 nightmares 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 ludicrous notion, I would have laughed out loud.
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 standards?
“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 realized 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 regarding 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 entrepreneurship — two concepts so often perceived as societally incompatible.
As I put my jacket on to leave, Elturk is talking to a group of sisters. I am situated in an odd place. Here is a community that is not mine, one that I actively rejected, but is nonetheless one I’m supposed to be a part of. Once I step outside of the League, into the frigid air and light snow, I will have returned and retreated, to the comfort of basketball and The Michigan Daily and meat that isn’t halal and my “real” friends. I am both an outsider 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 member. She is, however, Muslim, and her personal 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 Northville, 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’ organization 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 education 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 justice. 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 drawbacks 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 destigmatize 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 genuine 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 simply a social yoke? When you’re already an “other,” when you’re already the person who’s always described in the secondhand 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 application — aren’t you just playing into their hands?
I can’t count the number of times I’ve run through this in my head — especially at college, where everything is pronounced, heightened, politicized. I’ve always come down (smugly) on the side of the identity organization holdout (read: myself), that the true rebellion, rather, is in forcing them to accept you. They want you to join the Indian American Students Association, I tell myself; of course he’s part of the Muslim Student Association, they’ll say about me.
Of course now I’m second-guessing myself.
I make the journey to North Quad on a Sunday, when the MSA is hosting a brunch for people to “de-stress” and I figure this would be a useful exercise in familiarization: I haven’t seen the MSA function in a strictly social setting yet. Unfortunately, it’s a goddamn blizzard out there, and as I trudge through blistering winds my hair is ruined and I begin to worry about how I’m going to appear, I feel a burgeoning sense of regret.
But once I’m there I begin to feel a sense of comfort. I greet a friend from the newspaper upon arrival and accept ed a generous plate of food and coffee upon arrival.
Within the looming modernity of North Quad, at the top floor of its tallest tower, sits the Bowman Room (nicknamed the “Tower Room”). It’s a large yet cozy space, complete with a small kitchen, a working piano, and an assortment of plush furniture.
There’s a considerable turnout, probably because of the free brunch. The sisters are setting up the table full of food as the brothers pack themselves into the kitchen and cook. It’s a spread of pancakes, scrambled eggs, donuts, and other assorted treats — I spot a plate stacked with za’atar-filled pita bread, so I can safely report to my parents that our friends at the MSA have not entirely lost their roots. My friend from the Daily is painstakingly setting up a “hot chocolate station,” replete with candy canes and whipped cream. The guys in the kitchen shout Future lyrics while weirdly specific Arabic music plays from some kid’s speakers. They look like they’re having fun.
I’m introduced to Mazen Oweiss. He’s a director, a junior like me, and this year he’s become significantly more involved in the MSA. He’s also of Egyptian background, and he has a distinctly Egyptian-American way of speaking — along with a quintessentially Egyptian thicket of dense, curly hair — that vividly evokes the kids I grew up with, the friends I used to spend my weekends cutting Sunday school with to go to Walgreens, the people whom I have all but lost my once-robust connection to.
Mazen and I talk for a while as a steady stream of MSA members file in and I’m introduced to each one with a hearty “Assalam-u-Alaikum” and shake hands. As we sit among the brothers on couches, and the sisters mill about the table of food, Mazen talks about how this year’s cohort of the MSA is much closer, increasingly relaxed and hearteningly unified.
My sister, who was an active member of her university’s MSA, always told me about the troubles that plagued her organization: religious condescension, jealousy, pettiness, people actually getting married, and other hurdles that prevented the group from getting things done. But as I’ve learned — and as Mazen points out — this MSA has accomplished a lot. They’ve done countless outreach programs, hosted successful events, and fully embraced their role as campus activists. Their biggest issue now continuing the trend into next year.
I’m surprised at how forthcoming Mazen is; he knows I’m here to write a story, and that I’m not really a part of MSA. But at this point, I’m a bit confused, too: What am I doing here? I’m an outsider: A journalist and on top of that a Muslim who isn’t in the MSA. At some point during this whole endeavor, they looked past that double whammy of alien remove, and let me in.
The food is a welcome treat, the atmosphere is warm, the people are friendly. But I’m shook. As I have done for years, as I always do, I tell them I have to get going (I don’t). I quickly throw on my jacket while Mazen tells me to come out more often, while another kid smiles at me, while the rest of this organization is enjoying the company of each other’s presence. I see them in their social setting, and I realize, then, how difficult the past month must have been. For the sisters, for Muslims, for anyone feeling without a community — I understand, finally, the burden that has been placed on these people who didn’t ask for it. It is not the politics of activism I’m searching for, and I guess it never was.
I grab my stuff and head out the door, but not before my old friend Humza grabs me by the arm and asks for my number. I hesitate, imagining the nightmare barrage of texts I’m bound to receive (“Salaam brother! We’re all going to fast today just for fun, care to join us?”; “Salaam brother! The brothers and I are going to Pinball Pete’s tonight. You should come!”; “Salaam brother! Why weren’t you at jumuah today?”)
But then, the word jihad crosses my mind. I had been taught, years ago on a Sunday, that this word does not mean what the news tells us it means, that it is a term not to be co-opted by the terrorists who seek to ruin us, that we all have our personal jihad: it means “struggle.” I see a family, proud and brave, boarding a plane to seek refuge. I see the physical manifestation of bigotry and hatred, a padlocked gate at the entry of acceptance, forcing them back. I see love, acceptance, humanity and a profound, aching empathy denied their chances to shine; instead, I see a people humiliated in the streets they had hoped would accept them with open arms. I see, now, why those before us struggled, why we must struggle — and, if only I struggled — why those to come may not have to.
I grab Humza’s phone and tap “Create Contact.”