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The Campus as Crucible: A Critical Race Analysis of Campus Climate in the Experiences of American Muslim Undergraduates

by Arshad Imtiaz Ali - 2019

Background/Context: Muslim communities in the United States have increasingly been the target of the state security apparatus, virulent public discourse, and increasing cultural xenophobia. Since 2001, individuals perceived to be from Muslim backgrounds have experienced dramatically increasing numbers of racially motivated attacks. What is often called “Islamophobia,” or anti-Muslim discrimination or racism, has continued to rise in the past decade. Muslim communities face an acute political and cultural attack in which their actions and words are increasingly scrutinized and questioned. College campuses have been particular sites of contestation. This article explores how Muslim undergraduates understand their campus experiences.

Purpose/Objective/Focus of Study: I examine how Muslim students expressed feelings of isolation and alienation on their campus community in a context of state surveillance programs targeting Muslim students and communities. In particular, I explore student narratives of being conscious of peer suspicion. Further, I investigate how self-consciousness of their outsider status created an environment where Muslim students feel they must continually attempt to make their peers comfortable with their presence while also challenging dominant stereotypes of Muslims. This study gives voice to Muslim undergraduate students as they negotiate prejudices, scrutiny, and discrimination on college campuses.

Setting: Data was collected in southern California because there is a critical mass of community, concentration of students, and number of political advocacy and service providers for the diverse Muslim communities in the region. Focusing on this age group allows for an examination of this specific generation’s understandings of race, identity, and citizenship, because they came of age amidst a rise in discrimination and racism against those associated with Islam and Muslims.

Data Collection and Analysis: Data was collected through semi-structured life history interviews and ethnographic observations of Muslim undergraduates in Southern California. The interviews spanned between three and five hours each and were conducted over multiple meetings with each participant. Drawing from a critical feminist framework, interviews were conducted not simply to garner data, but rather to allow students the opportunity explore their own experiences, analyze their histories, and engage in social analysis. The research utilized a multi-level coding scheme in order to understand individual meaning-making processes.

Findings/Results: This study reveals that Muslim students often feel politically and culturally targeted and isolated on their campuses and do not feel that their peers and teachers engage with them as full members of the campus community.

Conclusions: This study contributes to the growing body of literature that demonstrates the multiracial demographic of students who choose the term Muslim as a primary form of identity. This study reveals that Muslim students often felt politically and culturally targeted and isolated on their campuses and did not feel that their peers and teachers engaged with them as full members of the campus community. Colleges and universities must take proactive steps to engage Muslim students in dialogue about their concerns, fears, and questions about issues of freedoms and protections on campus.

Although discrimination against and targeting of Muslim bodies cannot be disentangled from U.S. military actions throughout the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, this study focuses on the U.S. context, or what one might call the domestic front of the United States' international wars (Maira, 2004)with Muslim youth and students being the primary suspects and targets. Although Mairas assertion of a domestic front to an international war is now over a decade old, it continues to be salient, and possibly even more evident today in social, political, and policing contexts.

Beyond post-September 11 backlash (Cainkar, 2004), the United States has seen cultural and political responses to both Syrian refugees fleeing war and the fall of Middle Eastern governments that fuel anti-Muslim hysteria in American politics, culture, and society. These global issues have raised considerable concerns about the climate Muslim American college students face. Beyond struggles for access to resources, difference, and daily discrimination, these Muslim students are often treated as live domestic targets of an international war (Maira, 2004).

College campuses have been particular sites of contestation. NYPD spokesperson Paul Browne said in 2012, Some of the most dangerous Western Al Qaeda linked/inspired terrorists since 9/11 were radicalized and/or recruited at universities in MSAs [Muslim student associations] (Baker & Taylor, 2012). The FBI is known to monitor Muslim student associations and Muslim college students (Aaronson, 2013). Being born U.S. citizens does not grant Muslim youths full cultural citizenship rights (Ali, 2016); these youths are not treated as contributors to U.S. civil, political, and cultural life, on or off campus, but as suspects, potential fifth columnists (enemies within who can mobilize to support an external attack), and sleeper cells (Ali, 2016). Because of this context, this study focuses on Muslim students in higher education.

Within this article I highlight some of the nuances of how Muslim undergraduates understand their campus experiences. I specifically explore how students in southern California expressed feelings of isolation and alienation on their campus community in a context of state surveillance programs targeting Muslim students and communities. In particular, I explore student narratives of being conscious of peer suspicion. Further, I investigate how self-consciousness of their outsider status created an environment where Muslim students feel they must continually attempt to make their peers comfortable with their presence while also challenging dominant stereotypes of Muslims. Finally, I explore how the donning of hijab structures some womens experiences in ways that push them to the edges of campus culture. I consider how membership and social-insider status (and loss thereof) have profound ramifications on student engagement and campus climate.


Since 2001, individuals perceived to be from Muslim backgrounds have experienced dramatically increasing numbers of racially motivated attacks (Council on American-Islamic Relations [CAIR], 2016). What is often called Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim discrimination or racism, has continued to rise even in recent years. Between 2009 and 2010, anti-Muslim vandalism spiked 50%, anti-Muslim rhetoric in print and television discourse rose 150%, and violence against individuals perceived to be Muslim increased a staggering 300% (CAIR, 2011). 2016 had the highest reported incidents of anti-Muslim violence since 2001 (Pew Research Center, 2016). With politicians proposing to bar all Muslims from entering the United States and law-enforcement agencies placing Muslim citizenship in question and defining Islamic practices and places of worship as places of suspicion, Muslim communities face an acute political and cultural attack in which their actions and words are increasingly scrutinized and questioned.


Campus Racial Climate

Campus climate issues are not simply issues of reception by students of color on campus, but also include treatment by instructors, being taken seriously by ones peers, and receiving academic mentoring (Reid & Radhakrishnan, 2003). More than two decades of research on campus racial climate has provided ample evidence that students of color have vastly different campus experiences from their White counterparts (Buenavista, 2012; Gildersleeve, Croom, & Vasquez, 2011; Jain, Herrera, Bernal, & Solórzano, 2011; Museus & Iftikar, 2013). Individual experiences of ideological and social safety are not reflected in formal policies or admissions numberswhich are vastly important statisticsbut rather are evidenced in whether students feel safe to express themselves and not be targeted by their peers and classmates. Historically, this body of scholarship has shown us that students of colorespecially at predominantly White institutionsare often less engaged on campus (Hughes, Anderson, Cannon, Perez, & Moore, 1998) and more critical of their college environments (Hurtado, 1992). As exemplified by the Black statement protests nationwide in Spring 2016, student concerns are social concerns, and the politics of the broader society are reflected on college campuses.

More than twenty years ago, Hurtado (1992) stated, The research literature suggest that instances of racial conflict can no longer be viewed as aberrations or isolated incidents, but rather are indicators of a more general problem of unresolved racial issues in college environments and in society at large (p. 540). In like manner, larger social anxieties about particular bodies find their way onto campuses nationwide. Reid and Radhakrishnan (2003) concluded that different individuals canand doexperience the same school in dramatically different ways on the basis of race (p. 264).

Thus, the experiences of students of colorparticularly the bodies that experience the forms of discrimination discussed hereare an urgent subject of focus. Beyond the theoretical interest, empirical research shows that students who have more experience with particular forms of discrimination are more attuned to the nuances of what that looks and feels like, as well as able to perceive what their White peers cannot (Locks, Hurtado, Bowman, & Oseguera, 2008).

Muslim Student Identities in the United States

Scant research addresses Muslim student life. Within this small but growing body of literature there is a diversity of focus, with much of the research organized around questions of campus experiences and student identity. As Muslim identities continue to emerge as an area of scholarship in the social sciences broadly and in educational research specifically, this termMuslimhas been utilized by scholars as a referent with diverse and sometimes contradictory meanings. This is no surprise; as Edward Said (1994) reminded us, the Muslim has been constructed with a mix of racial, cultural, and religious identifiers since the late 1970s. In the most simplistic sense, much of this scholarship has focused on individuals who utilize Muslim as a self-identifierleaving participants to interpret their engagement with this identity as an objective starting point. But researchers subjective understanding of what and whom the term Muslim indexes guides what types of questions they should or could ask about Muslim life, structures how and where to recruit participants, and mediates the assumptions of what constitutes normalcy (or often in the case of Muslims, orthodoxy) within said life.

In turn, there are stark differences in what scholars mean when they reference the Muslim as a socially significant demographic. In this brief literature review I focus on research on Muslim undergraduate student life in the United States since 2001. Specifically, I attend to literature that broadly engages Muslim identities as multifaceted and not tied to elementally parochial, monumentalistic, and often Orientalist perspectives of what Muslim life entails. Rather, this study seeks to understand Muslim life as participation in diverse discursive community (Asad, 2003) in which actions, beliefs, cultures, genders, race, class, and sexualities all intertwine to create a complex web of Muslim identities and Islamic practices.

Post-9/11 literature on Muslim communities in the United States has begun to assert that Muslimness functions as a coherent social identity that intersects with ones racial and/or ethnic identity. Studies done with multiple South Asian American (Ghaffar-Kucher, 2012; Joshi, 2006; Maira, 2009), Arab American (Naber, 2005), and African American communities (Karim, 2005), independently and in engagement with one another, have found that Muslim youth are coalescing around a Muslim first identity (Naber, 2005, p. 494). Nonetheless, this research has pointed toward multiple overlapping identities, which do not supplant racial, ethnic, or gender identities (Astin et al., 2005; Cole & Ahmadi, 2010). Political context and beliefs have been central to this emerging Muslim identity. Developing political perspectives and negotiating American identities in the wake of post-9/11 anti-Muslim discrimination and violence have guided much of this research (Abu El-Haj, 2015; Ali, 2014, 2016; Ewing & Hoyler, 2008; Sirin & Fine, 2008). Naber (2005) found in her study that a Muslim first identity produces a context where the politics of race, gender, and identity is imagined and performed (p. 494).

Similarly, Lamont and Collets (2013) study of Muslim undergraduates explored political values and identities. In this study, the researchers found issues of peer acceptance of expressible political beliefs: Ultimately, students considered how their words were read by their peers because of being seen as Muslim. This finding influenced the questions I considered as I explored how Muslim students experience their campus as a safe place for themselves. Engaged social research with Muslim youth is vital to understanding their lives and contexts. In her study of Muslim and Arab community college students, Shammas (2009) found that the students were reluctant to report discrimination in survey formats and minimized speaking about discrimination in their lives.

Seeking to understand the unique aspects of a multifaceted, multipolar, Muslim college student identity, Mirs (2014) study examined Muslim women on college campuses in Washington, DC. Likewise, Cole and Ahmedis (2010) study found that Muslim women in college felt they were treated as exotic, fundamental and oppressed (p. 58). This study, along with other previous research (Ali, 2014), found similar themes among Muslim women on college campuses, particularly among those who wore a hijab. All of these studies affirmed that Muslim undergraduate women were well aware of how their bodies were read by their peers and were cognizant of projecting good Muslim identities for their peers and faculty. In building upon these works about Muslim womens identities, I explore how students are pushed to the edges of campus culture because of the ways their bodies are read. This study adds to the empirical and theoretical research on Muslim identities specifically, while also contributing valuable insight into a broader body of literature addressing campus racial climate.

Critical Race Theory, Racial Construction, and Muslims

In exploring the experiences of Muslim undergraduate students on their campus, I draw from two bodies of literaturecritical race scholarship and campus racial climatethe latter of which situates this work within the higher education context. Critical race theory begins with the proposition that race is socially constructed, politically deployed, and economically significant (Bell, 1990). Furthermore, critical race theorists see race as constantly in flux and in a process of redefinition. Thus, racialized structures must be historicized in order to understand how racial projects mediate social meanings (Omi & Winant, 1989).

Critical race scholarship helps us understand the ways in which race talk and racial violence are enacted on both material and ideological levels. In my research, I draw from scholarship that is formally defined as critical race theory, but also writings that critically examine race, racial practice, and racial violence in de- and post-colonial discourses. Such renderings of the global practices of race are particularly salient in helping to understand the words and experiences of young people whose personal and familial histories expand beyond the boundaries of the United States, like many of the students in this study.

This study of Muslim students in the United States draws specifically on racial literature rather than campus spiritual or religious life. This is done purposefully, because Muslim life in the United States is predicated on the colonial violence committed against enslaved Africans and African Americans. Since the inception of the United States, moreover, the representation of Muslim life has taken both phenotypic and physical iterations. The manifestations of the Muslim as the terrorist-enemy, the Black nationalist, and the healer-doctori.e., the post-1965 immigrant (Rana, 2007)all compete and create a complex setting of who and what the Muslim is. The Muslim is not simply the South Asian/Arab immigrant as depicted since 2001, but also occupies the space of the Black Muslim figure (Daulatzai, 2007). Although varying images of the Muslim abound, she has never been domestic or domesticated. In this regard, the Muslim may be a citizen, or Americanized, but she is never truly an American. Said (1994) stated that since the 1970s race, culture, and religion have become intimately tied with Muslims in the United States. This became increasingly true throughout the legacy of Black Muslims, the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple (Jackson, 2005), and the history of enslaved African Muslims in the Americas (Diouf, 1998). This relationship of Muslim life to Blackness is central to why scholarship on Muslim experiences in the United States must draw on racial scholarship and literature.

These juxtapositions provide an insidiously unique context where the figure of the Muslim has changed in phenotype, but not in the danger attributed to her. The Muslim is not simply constructed in the imagination of who she is presently, but rather within the context of historic Muslim communities, legal processes, global migration, and colonization. Thus, I contend that Muslim life must be understood not as religious or spiritual life; rather the self-identifier of Muslim has served as a socially significant identification which has been racialized and functions in tandem with traditional racial schematics within the United States. In short, being treated as a Muslim socially has little to do with theology or iteration of Islam, but primarily rests upon being marked as Muslim by dominant society.

As critical race theorists remind us, racial categories are socially constructed and shift over time because racial projects are fundamentally tied to political and social norms of the moment (Takaki, 1993). For example, antebellum U.S. social and political structures, which constructed Blacks as childish savages and women as fragile flowers, institutionalized the ideological structures to bar individuals deemed others from access to social, political, and economic power. Apart from simply protecting male privilege through the exclusion of women and people of color from academic, political, and economic opportunity, critical race theories provide fertile ground to explore the ideological construction of otherness. Although the ideologies written onto Blackness or women may shift temporally, exclusion has not. Likewise, Muslims in the United States are often portrayed as tentacles of international terrorist organizations who may murder fellow citizens or their classmates (Shaheen, 2003).

Within educational discourse, much critical scholarship of race is grounded specifically in critical race theory, which helps us understand how structures and institutions enact racial violence through both state- and individual-level violence, as well as the static administrative functioning of institutions built upon and through racist ideologies. Critical race scholarship is predicated upon the fact that race, racism, and white supremacy are central to all aspects of U.S. life, be they legal, political, social, cultural, or religious (Bell, 1992). Although critical race theory is contested intellectual ground, with multiple iterations and debates, it is predicated upon a critique of political liberalism (Bell, 1990); the use of counter-storytelling, or non-dominant epistemologies (Delgado, 1982); intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1991); and Whiteness as property (Harris, 1993). As Ledesma and Calderon (2015) noted, CRT provides a means by which to highlight both macro and micro sociopolitical and institutional structures impacting postsecondary access and success (p. 217).

Within my research, I explore how Muslim students experience the climate of their campus and how social and cultural discourses push them to the edges of campus culture. In this manner, this research project focuses on how students understand their experiences on campus and, in turn, does not examine institutional policies or practices. In this essay, I engage the intersectional experiences of Muslim students to understand their unique subject position on college campuses. Dixson and Rousseau (2005) and Lawrence (1995) asserted the centrality of the voices and experiences of marginalized communities for critical race scholarship. Thus, in countering dominant narratives this study not only provides an alternative account of campus life experiences, but also validates and publicly names the forms of material and psychological violence students from marginalized communities are subjected to. In his seminal text defining CRT in education, Solórzano (1997) credited the importance of experiential knowledge. For the participants in this study, this research relies upon the interpretations, descriptions, and thoughts of Muslim college students. This study places the highest priority on the lived experiences and experiential knowledge of the student participants, as the research population and the interpreters of social phenomena.

Building upon the tradition of campus racial climate literature that challenges accepted categories of race and ethnicity (Buenavista, Jaykumar, & Misa-Escalante, 2009), this study did not rely on state-defined categories. For example, instead of focusing tightly on a subcategory, the study turned to students own self-definitions of community, in this case that of the label Muslim. By utilizing student participants self-definitions, we develop a more nuanced understanding of how notions of race and religion are mutually constitutive and coproduced within this community.

Last, this study does not purport to reflect the demographics of Muslim communities in the United States, but rather students on the campuses which they attended. This research was done at four four-year colleges that were ranked as competitive (one campus), very competitive (one campus), and most competitive (two campuses) as defined by Barrons ratings (Barron's Educational Series, 2009). These campuses reflect the racial inequality of the United States and inequalities in U.S. public education, with historically unrepresented communities of color lacking equal access to such resources (Oakes, Lipton, Anderson, & Stillman, 2012; Tierney & Hagedorn, 2002). The racial makeup of Muslims in U.S. colleges is reflective of the larger educational inequalities in which racial privilege, wealth, and geography mediate access to quality secondary educationthe primary determinant of college-going in the United States (Oakes, 2005).


The data for this chapter are drawn from a larger study that explored the life histories and narratives of 24 Muslim undergraduates at four different institutions in southern California over a nine-month period. In this article, I draw upon semistructured life history interviews and focus groups. Within the larger study, I explored a broader, phenomenologically motivated question of what Muslimness meant in these young peoples lives and how they felt it manifested in their daily actions.


At the time of the study, the participants were between 19 and 23 years old, meaning that they were between ages 12 and 16 in 2001. Students in this age bracket were specifically chosen because they had been adolescents and had gone through middle school or had begun high school in the years following 2001. Given the sensitive nature of the topic, students were solicited through snowball and selective sampling, in which students on each campus were contacted and eventually referred others whom they knew. In order to have a more selective sample, from that initial sample I selected students for the study based on four primary criteria: (a) national origin, (b) gender, (c) familial income, and (d) involvement with Muslim/Islamic organizations (on or off campus). These criteria were used to ensure that students of these four demographic variables were present in the sample. Students were selected to ensure diversities in national origin/ethnicity in ways that were, in general, on par with Muslim college student demographics.

Parity in gender representation was central to this study, as was representation of multiple levels of familial income. Students were also selected to ensure diversities in types of involvement in community, political, and social life, both within and outside of specific Muslim communities. The youth who informed this study were all college students who identified with the label of Muslim (whatever that term meant to them). Students took an initial survey that collected data on college campus, major, year in school, campus involvement (broadly), languages spoken, national origin, race/ethnicity, gender, and citizenship. If selected and agreeable, these students were included as part of the study. Data from the initial survey of study participants were retained for data analysis.


The decision to conduct this research with college students has particular affordances and limitations. Focusing on this age group allows for an examination of this specific generations understandings of race, identity, and citizenship, because they came of age amidst a rise in discrimination and racism against those associated with Islam. Additionally, the space and age of college has often been noted by scholars of higher education as a point of particular importance in developing a sense of public identity and social engagement (Rhoads, 1998). College students represent only a select portion of the population; it represents, in general, those who have access to high school curricula with more honors and advanced placement classes, smaller class sizes, and more student support (Oakes, 2005). Thus, results from this study should not be expected to be representative of the Muslim community as a whole, in either southern California or the United States.

This aspect of the study was intentionally conducted with the recognition that the Muslim population of the United States is not a single community, but rather comprises different communities with some shared and overlapping experiences. Muslim college students represent a particular cross-section of the community that has developed and will continue to develop access to power within the political economy. The limited population of this study allows for deeper exploration of some of the issues within Muslim communities.

The youth in this study came from diverse family backgrounds. As stated above, Muslim communities in the United States are extremely diverse, and this is no different on college campuses. Some of the students were the children of the brain drain generationhighly educated or skilled immigrants to the United States from Asia and North Africa arriving after 1965 (GhaneaBassiri, 2010). Yet some of the students parents, or the students themselves, came to the United States as refugees from war or disaster in their home countries or as political asylum-seekers. Regardless of formal political status, many of the students families left their homelands because of political, economic, or religious repression. Below I present a categorical breakdown of the student participants with whom I worked.

Table 1. Participant Demographics













South Asian



Middle Eastern



East Asian



African American






Latino/African American





Parents born in the U.S.










Family income


> $120,000









< $40,000





Social sciences














aThere are 25 majors listed because one student had a dual major.

There were thirteen female and eleven male participants in this study. Ten students were South Asian, seven were of Middle Eastern descent, three were African American, one was East Asian, and one was Anglo American. Two students were of mixed-race heritage, one of Anglo-Iranian heritage, and one of African AmericanLatin American background. Sixteen of the 24 students were born in the United States, and the remaining eight were naturalized citizens. Of these, four immigrated before three years of age, three arrived between the ages of three and seven, and one was nine years old when he came to the United States. As noted above, there was a broad diversity of familial income represented by students within my sample, though all the students attended selective universities in southern California.


There are four main reasons that this study was situated in southern California. First, the region has one of the largest concentrations of Muslims in North Americabetween 400,000 and 800,000 people (Zogby International, 2000).1 Second, the area captures a broad array of religious, political, community, and social-service organizations specifically focusing on or working with the Muslim community in southern California. Third, Muslim student organizations on college campuses in California have national prominence. Finally, Los Angeles has played a particularly significant role among Muslim communities nationally. There are a critical mass of community, concentration of students, and number of political advocacy and service providers for the diverse Muslim communities in the region.


Data for this study were collected through semistructured interviews with the students in English. Conversations, in total, lasted between three and five hours and were conducted over one to three sessions for each student, depending on availability. The interviews took place in locations throughout southern California, including campus eateries, libraries, off-campus cafes, and student homes. Privacy was maintained in public settings by speaking in quiet spaces and away from others. I also collected ethnographic observations of student group meetings, activities, and campus political events over the same period.

At the conclusion of each interview, I wrote an analytic memo addressing emergent themes, topics, or questions related to data collection, the participant, or the broader study that were raised during the interview (Saldaña, 2012, p. 33). After transcribing each interview, I further developed analytic memos that were included with the interview transcript so they could be analyzed as part of the data (Strauss, 1987, p. 110).

Using a life-history format, I built rapport with the youths who participated in this study and had the opportunity to explore the nuances of their issues, concerns, and perspectives. In organic conversation, we discussed issues of representation, identity, and public life. Interview questions are included as Appendix A.

These students lives and stories provided the text from which I was able to unpack and interpret their social analysis and meaning-making processes, engaging their perspectives with social theory, as a ground-up process (Fontana & Frey, 2000; Hertz, 1997; Rubin & Rubin, 1995). Focusing on individuals and their lives avoided thinking of students as simple archetypes or popular tropes of Muslim characters (e.g., the fundamentalist, the secularist, and the oppressed woman).



In addition to giving pseudonyms to all participants in this study, I took specific care to ensure the students were comfortable with their transcripts because of the politically sensitive nature of young Muslims' discussing politics in the United States. Muslim youth have been targeted by U.S. policing agencies for expressing critical perspectives on U.S. policies. Thus, I gave students the time and space to consider how their words might be read.

After transcription was complete, I gave participants the interview transcripts to ensure that they were comfortable with their words. This project was not constituted to "catch" students saying something, but rather to explore how they truly felt at a specific moment in their youth. Two participants contested segments of their transcripts; further conversations revealed that the participants agreed that they had made the specific comments and that they believed those statements at the time, but they no longer held those positions. Through this conversation, they agreed to let the transcripts stand as is, as historic documents, rather than running accounts of their positions on particular issues over time.


Once they were verified, I de-identified all transcripts and assigned each participant a pseudonym in order to maintain their privacy. I then hand-coded the transcripts, using an iterative coding process consisting of four successive coding methods in order to analyze and develop cogent themes from the data. Emergent themes for this paper included (a) engagement with campus community, (b) social treatment, (c) perceptions by faculty, (d) presentation of self, and (e) depictions of Muslim life. Through in vivo coding in particular, salient themes rose to the fore, including participation in political life and narratives of cultural citizenship.

The coding methods used were attribute coding, in vivo coding, descriptive coding, and pattern coding, in that order. This coding scheme was derived from three methods of what Saldaña (2012) referred to as first cycle (p. 45) coding and one method of second cycle (p. 149) coding, in successive order. First-cycle codes happen during the initial coding of the data (p. 45), and second-cycle codes are used to develop a sense of categorical, thematic, conceptual, and/or theoretical organization from your array of First Cycle codes (Saldaña, 2012, p. 149). I selected this plan of successive coding methods in order to capture all relevant data and engage participant meaning-making and insights, while also using theoretical understandings to frame, structure, and represent specific formulations of data as themes in the text. Furthermore, I used analytic memos throughout the data-analysis process to document specific incidents, capture salient reflections, and analyze preliminary data (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996; Strauss, 1987).

I first coded the data using what Bogdan and Bilken (2006) referred to as setting/context codes, and what Saldaña (2012, p. 70) called attribute codes. This form of initial coding serves to ascertain basic demographic and descriptive information from the participants in the study (Saldaña, 2012, p. 70). These data included each participant's university major, year in school, race/ethnicity, and gender/sexual identification. These data also identified types and spaces of engagement, including student groups, service activities, and community engagement. These codes allowed me to explore the data to see whether there were differences in students' experiences.

After the initial attribute coding, designed to identify the basic demographic information in the data, I used an in vivo coding method (Charmaz, 2014; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). I used this emic coding method to ascertain how participants themselves used particular language to describe their experiences on and off campus. This coding method allowed me access to imagery, symbols, and metaphors for rich category, theme,  and concept development (Saldaña, 2012, p. 94). By using an in vivo coding method, I was able to see not only how individual participants used language, but also how particular language was used by multiple participants, yielding new insights into the data (Martinez-Roldan & Malave, 2004, p. 165). For example, through in vivo coding, I was able to ascertain the specific use (or abstraction) of possessive pronouns in students discussions of student groups, colleges, and the United Statese.g., our university versus the university.

Following the in vivo coding, I used descriptive coding to develop an inventory of what was in each transcript (Saldaña, 2012, p. 72). With the in vivo codes as starting points, the descriptive codes allowed me to build connections across similarly worded emic codes. Specifically, I employed tools of critical discourse analysis to examine particular speech incidents and interactions in order to explore word choices, topics chosen or avoided, and forms of argument and evidence (Fairclough, 2010; Martinez-Roldan & Malave, 2004). In addition, I used indexical properties of language, including word choice and metaphors (Van Dijk, 1998), as a way to employ the theoretical framework of critical race studies, which was also central to my analysis of the developed codes. These codes consist of short words or phrases that summarize the main ideas raised by participants. For example, I assigned descriptive codesincluding peer trust, campus safety, engaged with fear, peer stereotypes, and dispelling mythsto corresponding ideas described by participants.

The final stage of coding consisted of pattern coding (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Saldaña, 2012). This coding method allowed me to bring together codes from the descriptive and in vivo codes via the theoretical framework used in this studynamely, critical race theoryto derive metacodes that used the theoretical framework to respond to the research question for this paper. These codes allowed me to classify each emergent and salient theme into a more meaningful and parsimonious unit of analysis (Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 69).

The pattern codes used in this analysis emerged from a blended process of bringing the emic codes into dialogue with the theoretical codes in order to identify pattern codes. I reviewed the previous codes, in particular the descriptive codes, from round two of the coding process. I assembled similar codes together into meaningful categories to create pattern codes. These pattern codes help summarize specific segments of data and group those summaries into smaller themes, which enables deeper analysis of the data and greater levels of specificity and insight. Table 2 provides an example of how four descriptive codes were grouped to form a pattern code. Appendix B presents example codes across this study, and Appendix C provides the thematic coding for the study.

Table 2. Examples of Descriptive and Pattern Codes

Descriptive codes

Pattern code


Campus safety

Engaged with fear


Treated with suspicion

The pattern codes identified through this four-step data coding process were then brought together to develop themes that formed the basis for the findings of this study (Saldaña, 2012, 154). I developed these themes by using critical race studies literature, particularly in the area of campus racial climate, to explicate particularly salient theoretical and topical concerns emerging from the data. For example, the pattern code treated with suspicion was brought together with two other pattern codes (being the other and challenging stereotypes) to develop the theme of not part of the campus community. Through developing these layered narratives and life histories, the students and I together constructed conversations in identity, and public personas were not simply asked about, but revealed as part of an organic conversation about participation in public life, challenges, and identity. By focusing on the individuals and their voices, a qualitative approach posits that theory development is a ground-up process (Fontana & Frey, 2000; Hertz, 1997; Rubin & Rubin, 1995). These students lives and stories provided the text and context from which I was able to unpack and interpret their social analysis. From their life histories, I was also able to see ways in which the students, at times, displayed similar patterns and meaning-making processes.


As a South Asian male with a Muslim background who has been actively involved in a variety of youth organizing communities in southern California, I was able to access a number of Muslim youth within the region. Because Muslim beliefs and political affiliations are regularly questioned by state authorities, and as surveillance of Muslim communities (especially youth) increased, my engagement with these communities was invaluable to this study. Because most students were familiar with me personally or with the political/community work I was engaged in, I was afforded a level of intimacy and access needed for a particularly sensitive area of research.


The Muslim undergraduates who participated in this study did not feel part of their campus communities. They stated that they were otherized and treated with suspicion by their peers and faculty because of their Muslim background and identification. Furthermore, I explore through this data how these students discussed their distance from whiteness as a central reason that they felt they were treated as outsiders within campus cultural and ideological spaces.


Although none of the students in my study were targets of the most virulent aspects of post-9/11 U.S. domestic foreign policye.g., secret evidence, indefinite detention, or suspension of Miranda rightsthe students did state that they regularly felt anti-Muslim bias and bigotry on their campuses. Amina, a senior social-science major, expressed what the majority of students described: Although they have not faced the most blatant forms of endemic and persistent discrimination in American history, nor the most violent aspects of anti-Muslim legislation, these students do face daily social isolation and suspicion about their national allegiance. Amina explained:

You know, we are college students, but sometimes some people even here [at the university] . . . like people on campus, even teachers, look at you like you dont belong or say things. Usually its just a feeling you get, like you are from a different planet . . . but also, sometimes people, like, make jokes they think are funny. They dont even know me, but just because of how I look, say things like, Well, you arent going to blow us up, right? How do you respond to that? (2008)

The 21-year-old Amina elaborated that jokes were often directed toward the civility of Muslims and at individuals from countries whose populations are, or are assumed to be, Muslim majority. This is emblematic of how anti-Muslim discriminationwhat people deem Islamophobiatargets not only individuals from Muslim backgrounds, but also a broader body of people assumed or read to be from the East.

Likewise, Hannah, a junior majoring in economics, recounted conversations with her White American roommate in which she was targeted and insulted because of her national origin. Amina stated that in her freshman year, her roommate would often make jokesthat people from Pakistan and over there were dirty and uncivilizedboth to her and about her, and to her friends in the dorm room and when they were on campus. Hannah was deeply hurt by these jokes and confided, Even though they [her roommate] didnt mean it, you are still the Other. [The joke that] all Pakistanians (sic) are dirty . . . it means you are different, dont belong, and you are someone else (2008). Hannah stated that although she was friends with her roommate and her roommates friendsall of whom were White womenshe felt uncomfortable challenging these jokes because she felt she would be ostracized. In recounting this story, Hannah noted that her roommates callousness further compounded her ignoranceher jokes did not even use the right term for Pakistanis.

In addition to the stories of Amina and Hannah, students said that othering was enacted in ways that communicated that they did not belong in the United States, nor did they have rights or claims to this country. Taiba, a senior majoring in communication studies, revealed a painful story about a college roommate from a prior year. Although this roommate had never directly confronted Taiba about being a Muslim, her roommate had acted coldly, maintained a staunch distance, and often made derogatory comments about Muslims in her presence. Taiba noted that she once walked into her room and heard her roommate on the phone saying that she was afraid that Taiba might blow herself up (2008). Taiba explained that toward the end of the school year her roommate, without even being asked, conceded, I have come to realize after living with you, it is not the way we are told it is. It is not the way we are made to see Muslims. It is not like that. Taiba felt both vindicated and upset by her roommates statement. Nonetheless, she said she was not surprised. Although she was content that someone who had lived with her for nearly a year did not believe she mirrored the common images of Muslims in public discourse, Taiba was frustrated that her roommate had questioned whether the most caustic stereotypes of Muslims applied to her at any point in their relationship.

Amina, Hannah, and Taibas experiences are emblematic of what I heard from nearly all of the participants in this studyeither directly or indirectly, they were targeted for ridicule and isolated because of their Muslim identity. In short, they were treated as suspects to be feared or mocked. These findings mirror the work of scholars who have studied the experiences of students of color on college campuses who experience social isolation, marginalization, and targeting (Buenavista, 2012; Gusa, 2010; Museus & Iftikar, 2013; Solórzano & Yosso, 2001). Nonetheless, this is just the first step. As we see in the following data, the tenor of isolation and targeting extends beyond social isolation.


Students regularly confided that they felt they were in a liminal position, treated simultaneously as an insider and an outsider, both in a national context and specifically within their campus community. Quite simply, students stated that portrayals of Muslims in public discourse closely reflected the ways in which their peers, faculty, and other members of their campus community engaged them. Jasmine, an African American senior majoring in psychology, explained, Its funny how people look at you when they find out something they dont know about [that I am Muslim]. The way they treat you changes (2008). Jasmine noted that she had recently started wearing a hijab in the two years prior to meeting me. She said that when her classmates saw her in a hijab, many of them became more distant from her and spoke with her less. Jasmine said that being seen as a Muslim put a wedge between her and her classmatesher classmates were colder, more distant, and less friendly, even though she was just as American as them. Jasmine said that girls with whom she spoke regularly on campus just stopped chatting with her and being friendly with her. She added that other students spoke to her as if English was not her native language.

As an African American woman, Jasmine reminded me that her family had been in the United States longer than most of these White people here. Yet, she said, her classmates often began conversations by asking her, Where are you from? The materiality of Jasmine's Blackness gave her the space to claim Americanness in the face of White (and Black) Americans' otherizing of her. Although the first-, second-, and third-generation Americans in the study claimed their status as Americans, they did not report engaging Whites by claiming more Americanness than them. Jasmine went on to say, raising her voice in exasperation, Its not like I don't sound like I am from here! Furthermore, half of the students in my study echoed her comments, affirming that their relationships with classmates, teachers, and friends in school were significantly strained if people saw them as Muslim. As Jasmine stated, Yeah, people were, like, more distanced and . . . more suspicious. Although the students disagreed on whether they believed anti-Muslim racialization and bigotry had existed prior to 2001, all of them agreed that the specific forms of discrimination and targeting were evident and more pronounced as a manifestation of the U.S.-declared War on Terror.

These women students words are reminiscent of Fanons (1967) narrative chapter The Fact of Blackness in Black Skin, White Masks. Fanon recounted being pointed at by a child who shouted in exclamation, Look, a Negro! In theorizing this event, Fanon recognized that he was not simply the Other; rather, the process of identifying him carried psychological, social, economic, and political weight. In this chapter Fanon stated, I had read it rightly. It was hate; I was hated, despised, detested, not by the neighbor across the street or my cousin on my mothers side, but by an entire race. I was up against something unreasoned (p. 118). Fanons comment could have been made by any of the students in my study, and as shown, they made similar statements. As they described being targeted and scrutinized, they shared stories of feeling hated, despised, and detested by their peers, teachers, and society.


Feeling like an outsider on campus gave the students the space to reflect on how their classmates, faculty, and other members of the campus community engaged the students identities. Instead of being treated as members of the community, they felt as if they were individuals to be observed, learned from or about out of curiosity, or surveilled as a potential fifth column. The students felt their Muslimness was constantly at the forefront of the ways in which their campus community engaged them.


Nearly two-thirds of the students reported that they actively worked to challenge their peers stereotypes of Muslims. All of the students said that the ways they led their lives contrasted with dominant images of Muslims in public discourse. For example, eight of the female participants said that their presence on a college campus inherently challenged what many of their peers imagined Muslim women were. Sarah, a junior psychobiology major, stated:

Lots of times my professors see me [in a hijab] and think I don't want a career, or are, like, uneducated. They think that I just want a husband, or that, like, I am not allowed to have a career. They dont even know. My mom is a doctor, and so is my dad. I grew up always knowing that is what I wanted. (2008)

Sarah's comment mirrors Hannahs earlier story about her roommate using the term Pakistanians to refer to Pakistani people. Sarah said that her ill treatment was exacerbated by the ignorance upon which it was based. She went on to share that she worried that the ways in which Muslim women are racialized might result in her not having mentorship or academic opportunities to pursue her career goals. She did not experience this as the intersection of Muslimness and gender, but as an example of the ways in which Muslimness is always gendered.

Like Sarah, the women in my study said that both their peers and faculty often engaged them with the belief that Muslim women were uneducated and controlled by the men in their lives. The students, both women and men, stated that by being active members of their classrooms and campus communities, they challenged the familiar and stereotypical images of Muslims in U.S. society. All the students were conscious of this challenge in all of their classroom interactions. Nonetheless, the students also attested to feeling tokenized when they did well. Students such as Sarah stated, People will say, like, Your English is really good, and I am like, Um, I grew up in the Valley, why wouldn't it be?' But I don't ever say that for real. This is another example of Islam and Muslim life being made foreign for Muslim Americans.

All of the students asserted that they made active decisions about how to engage mainstream society and individuals based upon responding to popular images of Muslim life. Often they said they felt it was their responsibility to help portray a positive image of Muslims to their peers and facultyan image, they said, not adequately portrayed in mainstream media and news outlets, nor reflected in dominant U.S. politics. These youths made active decisions to engage in public action, not for their own edification, but to represent Muslims as agents of social good and as engaged members of democratic society. Sarah said, I try to speak up in all of my classes so that people know Muslim women have voices, and can speak. I think it is important for people to see me speaking to dispel stereotypes. The students stated that it was important that Muslims were seen to be contributing to society. In such situations, the performance of identity is not simply a public relations campaign, but is laden with hegemonic practices, symbolic meanings, and representations.

In navigating the ideological spaces of university life, young Muslims had to constantly consider how Americans, both faculty and peers, would perceive their actions, for they did not believe they were treated as full members of the body politic. The students felt that their politics and identity were constructed within the context of having to ease the anxieties of their peers. They could not simply be who they were, but had to be ever cognizant of the ways in which their bodies and actions were interpreted by their peers and faculty. This experience is reminiscent of what W. E. B. Du Bois (1903/1982) referred to more than a century ago as double consciousness, or always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity (p. 45). This concept of always being conscious of the dominant, White gaze emerges from the experience of White racial domination. Du Bois found that Black Americans were neither fully within nor outside of the American social fabric. In this early text of his career, Du Bois recognized that the Black experience in the United States was not simply within a world that is dichotomous. From my research, we see the students articulating a critique that mirrors Du Boiss words from more than a century ago. As Du Bois expressed it, He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows (p. 45).


On college campuses, students often express their racial, ethnic, and political views through the clothing they don. Muslim students are no different. Although some students may be seen re(connecting) with cultural roots or possibly engaging in political and ideological exploration, these Muslim students said they were seen differently. Ahmed, a senior majoring in comparative literature and history, said that Muslim students often don traditional Muslim attire2 in association with the Muslim student associations outreach week. Nonetheless, he said, this was not seen as getting in touch with his history by many of his peers. Rather, he said, Muslims were treated as wholly outside of the spatial, cultural, and social schema of the campus community, and more broadly, of U.S. political society. As Yasmine recounted, Muslims are scary on campus in the eyes of the general community. Guys who wear jalibab on campus. Wear big beards and kufis. Girls in abbayahs. It freaks out people who dont understand it (2008). Yasmine felt that when Muslim students wore traditional clothing, it pushed them further away from being seen as American by their peers. Yasmines comment implies that Muslim students must assimilate into sartorial manifestations of dominant White culture to be treated less suspiciously by their peers. Although there are historical differences, we may find some salience in the ways that Black bodies and Black aesthetics are criminalized by state policing agencies, by primary and secondary school dress codes, and within the broader political and cultural community.

There was no singularity in how students believed one was marked as Muslim on their campuses. Being identified as Muslim by their peers extended beyond phenotype in multiple ways. For instance, a woman may don a hijab, or a man may have a specific style of beard or wear a kufi. Further, women and men also wore pieces of traditional clothing or T-shirts with logos, emblems, or statements that were overtly connected to Muslims or Islam. Often this was as simple as a T-shirt with the organizational logo of the Muslim student association. These were all markers of Muslimness,3 regardless of the students' actual engagement with devotional practices or theological perspectives. (It is important to note that although wearing a hijab or a kufi marks certain bodies as Muslim, these are certainly not the only markers.)


All six of the women in my study who regularly wore hijab believed that this article of clothing distinctly marked them as Muslim to their peers. Nonetheless, these women did not note a singular reaction to their physical presence on campus. Although all of the women who regularly wore hijab said they had been treated negatively, they had radically different experiences, as views of their bodies were also mediated by their phenotypes. Sophia commented that in school, My hijab is recognized with 'terrorist' and 'bombs' and all of those things. Right away people identify me with terrorists and bombs (2008). In contrast, Rhonda, an Arab American sophomore majoring in political science, tempered her social realism with patience:

If someone is looking at me, maybe they are thinking far thoughts or just looking in my direction. Obviously there are a percentage of people who dont like us for being Muslim, who think I am oppressed for wearing hijab, and others who dont know what is going on. (2008)

Rhonda said she did not want to presume what others were thinking, because if she did, she felt she would constantly be angry.

In considering how students understood the ways in which they were engaged and treated on their campuses, it must be noted that individuals perceptions are always subjectively understood and practiced. Two different students can have radically different interpretations of the same experience. Furthermore, the women in this studyand Muslim women in generalare not singular in their donning of a particular article of clothing, nor are they racialized in the same manner. Just as being read as Muslim is mediated by ones gender, it is also mediated by one's phenotype. Although some women said that they wore hijab throughout their adult lives, some said they made the choice to wear it at a particular time, while others said they wore it some days (and places) and not others. Finally, the way ones hijab was styled was also germane, although that was not explored in this study.

Similarly, albeit less prominently, the practice of men's wearing beards and particular articles of clothing was a notable finding. For men, looking Muslim was most often associated with having a beard and/or wearing a kufi. Mikael, the undergraduate president of his campus's Muslim student organization, noted that he had grown his beard out because I want people to know I am Muslim (2008). Mikael, an engineering major, recognized that this would bring negative reactions from some of his peers. He felt that people are a little more wary or dont know what to expect or what I am thinking or going to do. In response, he believed he could break down preconceived notions:

I get active and participate [in class]. It helps break down a lot of ideas people have. . . . I try to react to expectations. If someone tells me that Muslims are of no benefit to society, then I will do everything I can to benefit society. I find empowerment in that. (2008)

Beyond the classroom, Mikael asserted that often the first reaction to the beard is that you are one of them [a terrorist]. He recalled that after he grew his beard out, the staff at a campus eatery he frequented changed the way they treated him. A staff member said, You look like one of them now. Mikael explained that them referred to an abstracted terrorist, or an intimate enemy. Mikaels statement represents the way a Muslim student could be perceived not only as a social and cultural other on their campus, but also as someone who is one of them, or a potential terrorist. Of particular significance in Mikaels comments is his recognition that he was not othered solely because of his attire, but that the othering of a Muslim also constructed him as a threat to physical safety and an enemy of the state. Although Mikael actively worked to challenge these images in his local community, not every student was aware of his actions. He displayed exceptional strength through the adversity of being dehumanized by his peers. Again, though, Mikaels experiences of and belief in depicting Muslims as benefiting society meant that he had to consider what the dominant culture read as beneficial actions, rather than what he felt or truly believed in. For example, a student might engage in a program to provide food for the homeless, but work and advocacy for a radical redistribution of wealth or against racial capitalism could be read differently by their campus community. Similarly, to challenge White supremacy might not be seen as beneficial, but rather regarded as another example of Muslim radicalism and thus an action to be avoided.


The term "Muslim" is often treated in popular discourse as primarily a religious marker. I contend that this conception of the Muslim is far too simplistic. This is especially evident on college campuses, where Muslim student organizations have grown in number and visibility over the past generation. This was a recurring theme in my conversations with Alima, a junior international development studies major. Alima noted that she was surprised when she arrived at her undergraduate institution and found Muslim students engaged in coalition work on campus and community-based work off-campus with other student of color organizations. She reflected, I used to be the only Muslim; now I am dealing with other Muslims who are active members of the community [at large] (2008). Anecdotally, many of the Muslim student organizations on the campuses where this study was conducted had strong relations with student of color organizations on their respective campuses. This is not necessarily the case nationally.

Although on the surface it might appear to Americans that racially and religiously based organizations are strange bedfellows, we might reflect on the wisdom of Ali Richard Wright. After participating in the Bandung Conference in 1955replacing Malcolm X, who did not attend because the U.S. government would not allow him to travel out of the countryWright (1956) said, You are classed as a colored man by the West . . . and yet you are religious. Now, many people fear the world of Islam. And that world is colored (p. 105). This was especially true of the four campuses where this data was collected. On campus, Muslim student organizations are often seen differently from other religious student organizations. In southern California, where I conducted this research, Muslim student organizations on campuses were generally linkedformally, through coalitions, or informallyto student of color organizations; consequently, these students participated in progressive student organizing efforts. In addition to spiritual programming, they had service programs and events based upon identity, politics, and culture, in a manner similar to student of color organizations. Ahmed, whom we heard from earlier, asserted this most clearly when he described how he spoke about the Muslim organization on his campus, of which he was an active member:

Being a Muslim, I confuse it [the Muslim student organization] with being a geographic, racial, or political marker when I talk to others about it. When I talk to people about the MSA, I say [it is] where Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians get together. For other people, they see it as religion. (2008)

In this comment, Ahmed pointed to two distinct meanings of Muslimness. When speaking about the organization to outsiders, he stated that it held geographic, racial, and political connotations. Ahmed juxtaposed Muslims with Arabs and South Asians as parallel labels, not necessarily because he saw the community that way; rather, as he revealed, he believed that the general student population understood the term "Muslim" to be parallel to racial and ethnic self-definitions. Still, he noted that the idea of a Muslim community speaks to a religious identification as well.

Nonetheless, as evidenced in my data and Ahmeds words, Blackness remained invisible in much of the students discourse about Muslim identities. This was a particular form of erasure generally experienced by students in my study a lack of engagement with African American Muslims on their campus, in their communities, and in their lives. African American Muslims and Islam were simply invisible to the vast majority of students with whom I engaged. Further research must explore the perceptions and experiences of African American Muslims engaged with Muslim student associations.


Muslims are an important student demographic whom colleges have not actively engaged or understood. In light of the political targeting of Muslim communities in the United States in the 21st century (and before), there is no doubt that the challenges Muslim communities and youth face are not temporary. Nonetheless, Muslim students are often simply counted as constituencies within existing racial and ethnic categories. Muslim students do make up part of these constituencies, and there significant divergences within the label of Muslim. Yet there is still something salient and significant in this particular identity formation. This study contributes to the growing body of literature that demonstrates the multiracial demographic of students who choose the term Muslim as a primary form of identity. Given contemporary politics, this self-definition has become even more relevant. This study reveals that Muslim students often felt politically and culturally targeted and isolated on their campuses and did not feel that their peers and teachers engaged with them as full members of the campus community. This study supports the findings of previous research on Muslim students and youth (Cole and Ahmedi, 2003; Ghaffar-Kucher, 2012), which pointed toward experiences of exotification and othering. Furthermore, it continues to add to the literature and furthers the empirical literature explicating a Muslim student experience that, though not singular or unified, is recognizable.

Second, the concerns of Muslim students should not be understood differently from those of other students of color on college campuses. Efforts should be made not only to protect students from overt discrimination on campus, but also to make all students feel engaged, safe, and comfortable as equal members of the campus community. University administrators need to revisit their definitions of acceptable and unacceptable speech on campuses. Efforts should be made to ensure that these guidelines are responsive to contemporary manifestations of hate speech and bigotry. Furthermore, these standards should be applied equally to on- and off-campus groups using the university as a forum. Forms of hate speech that are unacceptable to use against any other group should not be condoned or allowed against Muslim communities. Hate speech and discriminatory actions foster a campus climate in which Muslim students feel not only isolated, but also betrayed by their institutions.

Third, rather than simply responding to reported problems, colleges and universities must take proactive steps to engage Muslim students in dialogue about their concerns, fears, and questions about issues of freedoms and protections on campus. Indeed, Muslim students expressed fear of policing agencies' tracking library records, course enrollment, and participation in student groups. This article does not address the question of police surveillance of Muslims on college campuses, but focuses on the effects of a social context in which surveillance of Muslims is accepted and expected. In fact, there is evidence that this is occurring nationally, as I have discussed in other research (Ali, 2016). Universities should be clear with all students about their policies and ensure that all students' rights are protected. Beyond Muslim students, campuses should engage various university-based constituencies and communities to ensure that students feel welcome and safe on campus. Campus safety does not mean simply ensuring that students are not physically harmed on campus, but also ensuring that the social and political climate does not include the types of polarizing and demonizing cultural and/or pedagogical practices that isolate, estrange, or marginalize any student populations.

Muslim students are attempting to build broad forms of campus engagement and participation. The students in my study did not advocate for theological engagement in U.S. policy, but rather addressed pertinent and widespread national policy conversations. Their engagement is a significant and important part of American society. Efforts by Muslim students and communities to engage in policy conversations or community development efforts should be supported and encouraged by campus administrators. Such efforts help communities build institutions, roots, and access to forms of civic engagement that have historically eluded nondominant communities, and they are pragmatic and practical ways for Muslim students to become engaged as full members of their campus communities.


1. I used data from 2000 because it is the only available data on Muslim communities in southern California. Scholarly research has not adequately captured the size of Muslim communities in the United States or in particular regions.

2. Traditional Arab attire has been identified, both within U.S. society in general and by the students who participated in this study, as attire that signifies Muslimness. I state this because it provides an initial context for exploring how Muslim college students themselves may be essentializing Muslim cultures. The nation with the largest Muslim population, Indonesia, does not have traditional national attire associated with or defined as Muslim, while within the United States traditional Arab attire is often seen as Muslim clothing.

3. This raised a question that was not explored in this studywhen students choose whether or not to wear a Muslim Students Association T-shirt or other Muslim-associated attire.


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What does it mean to be a Muslim on your campus? What are your experiences as a Muslim on campus?


How do these differ from your experiences off campus?  For example, at home or in the community?


What does the term Muslim mean to you? Do you think this has changed in your life over time?


How has the term taken different meaning at different points in your life?


How does the meanings of being Muslim change when you are on campus, off campus, with  your family and in other situations?  


Who defines being Muslim?


Does it affect how you relate to broader society?


How are you read? Are you read as a Muslim?


Do you identify a Muslim? If so, how?


What does the word community mean to you?


Who do you feel is your community your campus?


off campus?


What student groups/organizations are you involved with? What benefits do you feel you derived from being part of this/these groups?


How do you see Muslims represented in the mass media or the public?


In what ways do you identify with these representations? What part of these representations do you find reject, if any?


Why do you think these representations exist? Do you think there are any counter images that exist?


How do you think these images affect the way people see you? How do you think these imaged affect the way you interact with the world or your peers?


How would you define/describe your own identity?




Where is home/land?


What role does each play in your life?  Do you think there are places where different forms of your identity play out in different ways?


How much emphasis you put, or is put on, different parts of who you are? How has this shifted over time?


Do these emphasis differ when you are at different places, for example, permanent home (with your parents)?


Have you ever experienced discrimination in your life?


If so, where/when did this occur?


Why do you think you were targeted?


Do you ever feel targeted on campus?


Have you had experiences of micro-aggressions rather than overt discrimination?


Do you think it happened because of any specific aspect of your identity?


Have you had people you know experience any form of discrimination? In what was have you seen, or do you know discrimination to occur?


What does it mean to be Muslim in public space?


Does it require action? Do you feel you have any responsibility?


Emergent Theme

Pattern Code

Descriptive Code


Not Part of Campus Community:

Treated with Suspicion

Engaged with Fear

You have to understand, that people look at you and think you are associated with being a terrorist&.or they will crack jokes at least.

Peer Trust

People are a little more wary of me or dont know what to expect. People think I am one of them. Its usually not explicit, but people are more weary of me.

With a random person on campus, I cant be really open. You get the feeling people treat you like they cant trust you. They just arent as friendly. It all comes down to Muslims are the enemy.

Campus Safety

To be at events on campus where people are like, Muslims are all terrorists. Or that the MSA is a terrorist organization. Really just scared.

Like people just call me a terrorist or something on campus.

My professor said, Not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorist are Muslim. I told him I disagree. This guy was really conservative. He said, you know why Muslims hate us, because they dont have civil rights anywhere, so they want our rights.

When they bring speakers to campus to say all these things about Muslims. It is not considered hate speech. I mean I dont get scared, but I am sure like freshman do.

Peer Stereotypes

I walk around wondering if people see as just a Muslim. What does that mean, or what do they think? Is that an Anti-Semite? I wasnt sure how I was being perceived on campus. I wasnt sure how to perceive myself as an individual on campus.

People just think we hate American, Jews, Democracy, womens rights. We hate anyone who is not Muslim.

Even if you are good now, or seem good on the outside, you might not be. You might be a sleeper cell.

Challenging Stereotypes

Good Example

I know people have said go back to your own country and things like that. It makes me want to make sure that I am good to people and do good things and I want people to not look at Muslims as bad terrorists or whatever.

I have to navigate through that&how I am perceived. How am I going to be as an example of Muslims and Islam? For a long time I did feel like I had to. It has to be with me feeing like an alien here on campus. I feel like an ambassador. Here I am. I am a Muslim. Here is Islam. I am smiling. I am not a terrorist.

Dispelling Myths

In the beginning I might have attempted to dispel stereotypes, but I think I have stopped or lowered it now. Because the best way to dispel stereotypes is by way of examples. I dont even know what I am supposed to be dispelling at this point.

In every class I try to speak up so people know I have a voice as a Muslim woman.

I got involved in things like the robotics club because I like building, but also so people see that Muslims are engaged and regular people.

Being the Other


Being a terrorist is being associated with being Muslim. You get that vibe from people on campus.

If you see Muslims you have something to worry about. Muslims are scary people.

In class, every day, I have to fight. They teach that Muslims are ignorant.


Men are chauvinistic and imposing. When are subjugated. And not just overseas, they think that of here, like even here [on campus].

Like when people say you are in America or in California, why are you wearing that. They dont realize it is a personal choice. Yeah like when that happens you feel like you are on the outside.  

Women are much more homogenous or treated much more homogenous than men are. At least they have a personality. Sometimes people think we are just there to have babies. Portrayed as insignificant and to have babies. Women are sheep who are forced to be covered and never happy. So when they see me in a hijab it is negative too. Like what am I doing here/

Symbolic Muslimness


There is a certain way you look, or dress that is shown in the media. A lot of times that style of dress is not just about being Muslim, but it is associated with terrorism.


My hijab is recognized with terrorists and bombs. And all of those things. This is what I was realizing yesterday. Right away people identify me with bombs.

I have a beard and dark hair and dark eyes. They will say you are a dirty Muslims. I think it is the dark hair and eyes.


Descriptive (In Vivo) Code

Pattern Code

Emergent Theme

Engaged with Fear

Treated with Suspicion

Not Part of Campus Community

Peer Trust

Campus Safety

Peer Stereotypes

Good Example

Challenging Stereotypes

Dispel Myths


Being the Other


Look Like Terrorist

Writing Violence on Muslims

Symbolic Muslimness


Gendered Readings of Muslim Bodies


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 5, 2019, p. 1-38
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22653, Date Accessed: 1/8/2022 12:37:24 PM

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About the Author
  • Arshad Ali
    The George Washington University
    E-mail Author
    ARSHAD IMTIAZ ALI is assistant professor of Educational Research at The George Washington University. He is an interdisciplinary scholar who studies youth culture, race, identity, and political engagement in the lives of young people. His recent research has explored questions of Muslim youth identity and politics. He is coeditor of Education at War: The Fight for Students of Color in America's Public Schools. Dr. Ali’s work has recently appeared in Anthropology & Education Quarterly, Diaspora, Indigenous, and Minority Education, and the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education.
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