From April 8 to April 12, Carleton’s Muslim Student Association (MSA) hosted the College’s first Islam Awareness Week (IAW) in a joint effort with St. Olaf’s MSA.
“IAW is something that happens in a lot of MSAs across the country. It’s a way to bring awareness to what Islam is and engage open communication with the campus,” explained MSA President Sarah Chebli ’20.
“It’s been something we wanted to do for a few years, but MSA hasn’t had the people power to do it,” added Assistant Chaplain Ailya Vajid.
“Since I’ve been at Carleton, the Muslim population has been growing enough that we felt like if we had an IAW this year, we would have such an impact,” said Chebli.
Carleton-based activities were kicked off on Monday, April 8, with a digital #MuslimAtCarleton campaign, which was shared through the MSA’s Facebook page. During common time on Tuesday, April 9, MSA held an event in Sayles to open dialogue about hijabs. A formal talk regarding FBI surveillance of the Muslim community in the Twin Cities took place on Wednesday, April 17, after being postponed due to the snowstorm.
St. Olaf-based activities included community dinners, a presentation about female Muslim writers in history and a comedy night.
“We came up with the #MuslimAtCarleton campaign because IAW is just a week of events, and we wanted to create something beyond this week that could stay in people’s minds,” said MSA Vice President Hibo Abdi ’20.
“Islam has a particular portrayal in the media, so part of it was to give Islam a different, human narrative,” added Vajid.
The campaign included photos of various Muslim students sharing their answers to the question, “What does being Muslim at Carleton mean to you?”
“Although we are a small population, not all of us are from the same cultural background. We come from so many different places, and that’s something we wanted to highlight: that we are here and we’re here to stay,” continued Abdi.
The campaign received an overwhelming positive response.
“There were so many people were commenting on the photos and liking them—sharing them, even,” said Abdi.
“Even the College itself shared the campaign to their official Facebook page,” added Chebli.
In an effort to open dialogue about hijabs, MSA named their Hijab Day event “Do you shower in that?”
“It’s a question we actually get,” laughed Chebli.
Backed by OIIL funding, the group brought 75 hijabs to Sayles, inviting Carls to try them on and ask questions about the garment. They also decorated their station with “so many memes,” according to Abdi.
“There’s not a lot of spaces to talk about the hijab,” explained Chebli. “Some people feel a little awkward to ask questions, so we wanted there to be a comfortable, social atmosphere.”
“We were trying to show a piece of our life and get people to understand,” added Abdi. “It was not necessarily a culturally appropriative thing. It was more of showing solidarity. It’s not culturally appropriative if there are so many cultures within that religion.”
MSA was pleased with the event’s reception, though they see room for improvement in the future.
“A lot of people were looking—not necessarily—interacting, but they were very curious about what was going on,” said Abdi. “That, in itself, was great.”
“I just hope that next year, if we do this again, more people feel the courage to approach us and put it on,” concluded Chebli.
The Chaplain’s Office and Wellstone House of Activism (WHOA) co-sponsored the talk on effects of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)—a federal program that aims to “counter efforts by extremists to recruit, radicalize and mobilize followers to violence,” according to the Department of Homeland Security—and its effects on the Muslim and Somali communities of the Twin Cities.
“I live in Minnesota, so it’s really tied in to my day to day life,” said Chebli.
Chebli, who played a major role in coordinating speakers, also called the surprise April storm a “blessing in disguise.” MSA had originally planned to host one speaker and the delayed timeline allowed them to organize an additional two.
Local Muslim activists Ayaan Dahir, the Youth Development Coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations; Hanan Karia, an organizer for the Justice Coalition; and Asad Zaman, Executive Director of Muslim American Society Minnesota, were ultimately invited to speak. Each one touched on how CVE has discriminated against and divided minority communities in the Twin Cities.
“I had some prior knowledge about CVE, but not many of the details,” reflected Vajid.
“This talk was extremely helpful in giving the broader political backdrop and context for CVE, as well as the ways it directly affects communities in the Twin Cities and ultimately all of our civil liberties.”
A week in review
As MSA looks towards the future, they aim to expand their digital campaign and community engagement. For both Abdi and Chebli, what they accomplished this week is both a symbol of the strides they have already made and a forecast for future progress.
“Seeing so many students invested in bringing out the Muslim voice—that wasn’t a thing my freshman year,” said Abdi.
“Freshman year, I felt alienated on campus because it didn’t feel like there was much help for me as a Muslim student,” added Chebli. “There was an MSA, but it was small. Now, we have this community.”
MSA, which had roughly five consistent members last year, now has about 15. The group hosts regular meetings, largely thanks to an unprecedently “full and active board,” according to Vajid.
Chebli called IAW a “cherry on top” of several other MSA accomplishments: Muslim House was reopened in Fall 2017 after four years of closure. The College also began offering halal meat in the dining halls in Winter 2019.
“We’re laying down the foundation for Muslim students to feel safe and welcome in the Carleton community,” said Chebli. “I’m so excited for what MSA can do 10 years from now.”