The Muslim Student Association (MSA) promotes itself as the representative voice for Muslims on campus and usually plans Islam Awareness Week (IAW). The objective behind IAW is to dispel common misconceptions about Muslims in an environment of increasing Islamophobia.
However, representing Muslim voices is a heroic claim as there are many Muslim denominations, each of which has doctrinal differences with the other. There are Sunnis and Sufis, Shia Ithna Asharis and Shia Ismailis, Bohras and Ahmadis, progressive and LGBTQ Muslim groups. We also have vegan Muslims!
There are multiple intersections that lead to wondrous differences. For instance, there are feminist Muslims who do not affirm Muslim same-sex unions just as there are gay Muslims who are not comfortable with mixed gender congregations.
Yet, despite doctrinal differences, Muslims establish marital relationships as in the case of Sunni-Shia marriages. This means religious differences are no barrier to social and marital ties.
The problem arises when some Muslim institutional stakeholders create rifts through exclusionary practices and social discrimination. This includes passing takfir (excommunication) on Muslim LGBTQ rights activists, inviting only a select pool of Sunni speakers for IAW, and instigating a culture of moral policing.
In a time when intersectional work is instrumental in combating the rising tide of Islamophobia, it is important to affirm diversity in Muslim institutional spaces. Intra-faith unity is equally important as inter-faith work, as extremists greatly target fellow Muslims with different beliefs.
I asked Muslim youth about their concerns related to Muslim groups. Based on their responses, following are five ways in which Muslims can affirm the diversity of Islam and nurture safe spaces for all Muslims.
1) Inviting diverse Muslim leaders for IAW
A Shia Ithna Ashari alumnus from the University of Alberta mentioned about IAW:
“Where is the Shia, Ahmadi, representation etc. It’s more of a Sunni students association. So I guess the point is that they are not even inclusive when it comes to other sects.”
This means if groups like the MSA wish to represent all Muslims, they can invite speakers from a wide array of denominations. Ofcourse, Muslims will disagree on interpretations but inviting diverse speakers, who uphold universal ethical values, ends the myth of Islam being a monolith.
2) Affirming safe space for LGBTQ Muslims
LGBTQ Muslims face Islamophobia on the one hand and homophobia on the other hand. Muslims are increasingly speaking up against homophobia. A study showed that only 17 per cent of Muslims who grew up in Canada opposed same-sex unions. Indeed, if Muslim student groups assert that they represent all Muslims and do not judge LGBTQ Muslims, they can provide a safe space for LGBTQ Muslims and invite LGBTQ Muslim speakers for IAW.
3) Nurturing a culture based on “I” statements
Some zealous young converts and born again Muslims end up making hateful statements and justify them as if they were Islamic teachings. A non-Muslim alumnus from the University of Alberta expressed:
“A young Muslim man told me Muslims cannot marry Jews but Christians are acceptable, gays are pedophiles and only women covered head to toe are “good” Muslim women. I realized he didn’t speak for all Muslims, even though he claimed otherwise.”
A solution to alleviating hurtful statements is to make “I” statements instead of claiming to speak for all Muslims or Islam. Additionally, in a culture that prizes diversity of opinions, other Muslims would feel empowered enough to challenge archaic opinions. This way conservative and progressive Muslims can grow together in the same space.
4) Respecting diverse Muslim practices
There are Muslim women who feel that their Qur’anic reading mandates wearing the headscarf. There are other Muslim women who feel there is no text that justifies such a practice. As such, a religiously plural space would allow for both practices without judgment. The same holds true for other religious practices.
A Muslim convert at the University of Alberta stated:
“I ultimately chose to no longer associate with the MSA due to the overwhelming discomfort I felt in the conservative environment. There was content in several of the presentations, which I found to be misogynistic, isolating and misrepresentative of Islam. The space created at these events did not feel safe or accepting at all.”
A space in which there is no judgment would bring people together. This happens when we respect freedom of choice and not put each other down for being too progressive or too conservative.
5) Creating a culture of critical thinking
In universities, students are encouraged to think critically to develop a better appreciation for the course material. The same holds true for Islam or any other religion for that matter. An alive and vibrant religious community nurtures critical inquiry instead of fettering it with heresy charges. Mark Brustman, a gay Muslim researcher, effectively mentions:
“It would be great to see MSAs across the continent adopt a spirit of inquiry and openness to understand Islam as well as its historical context, consistent with their position as an association of university students, and in the confidence that Allah (swt) is the best preserver of the Truth.”
In conclusion, nurturing intra-faith diversity is a great strength for Muslims. In such spaces, there are no heretics, sodomites or moral prigs but only Muslims who are trying to live in a world fraught with many challenges.