The year 2016 is one of both regression and progress, a time when anti-Muslim bigotry has reached new levels but also a time when the people speaking out against such bigotry have gotten louder and less apologetic. This is a year when we have presidential candidates openly spewing hateful rhetoric against Muslims but it is also the year we see more and more Muslims challenging stereotypes and succeeding in many fields, whether it be politics or journalism or activism.
As a college student, I see Muslim students being exceptional in their academic fields and being outstanding campus leaders, despite being constantly asked to apologize for the actions of extremist groups.
Young Muslims are in a position to challenge the narrative surrounding Muslim-Americans in this country and to change the environment the next generation grows up in, starting from practical and meaningful steps they can take on campus.
1. Building a strong and open community
Groups like the Muslim Students Association (MSA) or Muslim Student Unions have been on American college campuses for at least forty years but the need for them today has increased. In the wake of increased anti-Muslim bigotry and a rise in hate crimes, we need to put more effort into these groups because they provide a support system to Muslim students who feel alienated or face some sort of prejudice.
MSAs are also a way to have Muslim voices heard on campus. Too often we have people speaking for us, or speaking over us. By having prominent and visible groups on campus, we can make sure that our own voices are loud and harder to ignore. We need to make sure MSAs are cohesive and are welcoming to all, regardless of race, ethnicity or religious differences.
2. Interfaith, interfaith, interfaith!
While working on building a strong Muslim group is important, we need to make sure we also venture outside of our Muslim community. We need to build bridges, not walls! No group can fight hatred or intolerance alone. Interfaith work is of the utmost importance to Muslim students right now because it is often through our interaction with students from the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Pagan and other faiths that we find these allies since we often share beliefs and experiences.
If there is an interfaith group on campus, make sure Muslim students are involved in it. If there is no such avenue for interfaith dialogue, take initiative and start one! Talk about the similarities and learn about each other's faiths. Bring two communities together.
3. Stop apologizing
It is important that people understand Islam and understand that it is not represented by terror groups, but it is also important that we don't spend all our time apologizing for and condemning attacks that have nothing to do with us.
It's all too common to see event after event on college campuses taking on defensive tones as Muslim students keep explaining what Islam is truly about. This sort of mindset, that we are somehow responsible for the actions of extremist groups, only serves to teach a whole generation of Muslims that they will always be viewed as the enemy.
And honestly, continuously apologizing is just exhausting. We know who we are and what we believe in. We know the values that our faith and our communities teach us: kindness to the young, respect for elders, compassion for the sick, generosity for the poor, and love and friendliness for neighbors.
Our communities are not perfect, and we have a lot of issues to handle, but focusing on unnecessary apologies and condemnation just reinforces the same idea: that Muslims are somehow accountable for the action of every other Muslim.
We get so involved and are so busy trying to explain away terrorism that we start becoming incredibly repetitive: all we hear are the cliché, tired phrases "Islam is peace" and "This is not true Islam" and we start to believe the narrative ourselves and to see ourselves as accountable for someone else's actions. And in all this, we forget to take care of real issues facing our communities.
4. Talk about the tough issues
This ties back to having a stronger and more open Muslim group on campus. Racism and gender equality are two of the real issues that we need to address, and more comprehensively than by just saying "There is no racism in Islam" or "Women were given rights in Islam fourteen hundred years ago". It's easier to brush these issues off or to talk about them in abstract but this will only lead to these problems getting worse and marginalized students feeling more and more unwelcome.
A college campus is a great place to tackle these issues because conversations about race and gender are happening all around us. Muslim students need to be a part of these conversations both within the Muslim community and with other groups. These conversations are not easy or comfortable, and there is a LOT of work to be done, but we need to start and keep going. As long as these problems exist, we need to keep working on them.
Young Muslim-Americans have often bore the brunt of the rise in anti-Muslim sentiments, and have had to explore and discover their own identities while simultaneously having these very identities challenged. At the same time, however, we also have the ability to enact real change, both on campus and off campus, by embracing who we are and recognizing our own potential to be an open and united community that embodies both our Muslim and American principles.