Duke University’s controversial decision to cancel a Muslim call to prayer generated debate and concern Friday on college campuses in the greater Washington area, but many Muslim students said they were accepted in campus life here and had not faced any hostility for observing customs such as wearing head coverings and praying on Fridays.
“I can’t imagine what happened at Duke happening here. The environment on this campus is very comfortable for us,” said Zainab Attai, 18, a student of international relations at American University.
Although Duke later reversed its decision, Muslim students in the Washington area said they feared the incident showed that many Americans are strongly influenced by negative images of Islamic terrorism despite the growing numbers of Muslims in American work and life.
“We were excited when we heard Duke was going to have the call to prayer,” Attai said. “It was really disappointing that they cancelled it, but in a way you can’t blame people when they see so many negative images of Muslims and Islam,” such as the recent terror attacks in France. “You have to expect some backlash.”
Attai was one of about 50 students who attended weekly prayers Friday in the carpeted basement of the Kay Spiritual Life Center at American University. There was no public call to prayer beforehand, but a Muslim chaplain gave a sermon on the importance of standing up for justice and answering ridicule with calm discussion, quoting from the Koran in Arabic and explaining in English.
The chaplain, Imad Ahmad, called the Duke incident “very disturbing. We have free speech in America, and the government can’t silence it, but some pressure groups want to silence Muslims,” he said. Speculating that fear of a donor boycott had scared Duke officials into cancelling the prayer call, he said, “I certainly hope this does not become a trend in America.”
Comments from several students suggested that the atmosphere on Washington-area campuses may be more tolerant to foreign religions than at Southern universities, which have historically been less diverse and cosmopolitan. One graduate student from Kuwait transferred recently to American from a university in Florida, and found a dramatic difference.
“Down there the environment was less friendly than here. I was one of the very few Muslim students and I was stared at all the time,” said the student, 32, who wears a voluminous head scarf. “There were no Friday prayers and people would give me weird looks.”
The comfort level of Muslim students at American University was echoed by those at other area universities, where the number of Muslim American students and international students from Islamic countries has grown steadily in the past decades. Many campuses now have several hundred Muslim students and have formed Muslim Student Associations, which often interact and share events with student groups from other faiths.
Ahmed Mahmood, president of the Muslim Student Association at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said there is a “healthy environment” for debate on campus and that Muslim students have gotten consistent support from officials for their religious requests, including establishing Friday prayer services at the campus interfaith center and planning to add halal food, which is ritually blessed for Muslim consumption, to the cafeteria menus.
“I am really happy with how things are here,” said Mahmood, a political science major whose parents emigrated from Pakistan. “We are only a few hundred Muslims on a campus of 14,000, a very diverse group, mostly pre-med and engineers. People are really fair and open to us, and it is a safe place to talk about big issues.”
He said the Duke incident was being widely discussed among Muslim students and in classes as well, with many expressing concern that it could signal a blow to the progress made by Muslims in American college life as well as in broader society.
“The timing makes it more emotional,” he said, referring to the terror attacks in France and their impact on public opinion. “It’s really sad when we bow down to the threat of violence against those who want to implement freedom of expression. This is not about faith, it is an expression of xenophobia that can do more damage in the long term.”