Safa Basidiq, a senior and sociology major at Kean
By Carl Stoffers
Kean University prides itself on its diversity, but is the Kean community as accepting and open to followers of Islam, particularly of Middle Eastern descent, as other religions and backgrounds?
“I’ve encountered prejudice and bias everywhere I’ve gone in America,” said Farah Ali, a twenty-one year-old history student born in Iraq. “I came here when I was three, my parents sought asylum in this country. I don’t know anything other than America, but when people hear I’m of Iraqi heritage, it’s almost like they’re offended.”
Ali’s experience isn’t unheard of, especially since the United States spent more than six years at war with Iraq. But college campuses, particularly ones that celebrate their diversity as Kean does, are designed to be bastions of freethinking and open-mindedness.
“I do feel welcome here at Kean, though. There is a large Muslim community, and there are students from all different walks of life. Still, I get the occasional odd feeling from people when they learn my background.”
Anti-Muslim bias in America has been well-documented, particularly since September 11, 2001. The peaceful religion of more than a billion people, which has been bastardized by a few thousand fanatics, is often seen as violent or extremist because of the tactics of radicals.
“I was always confused about odd feeling relating to my country of origin,” said Ali. “I was a child when 9/11 happened, so I didn’t understand such things. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, I was still young, but I began to hear negative things about my parents’ culture. Thankfully, I don’t have the same problem here at Kean.”
According to FBI statistics, there were 157 anti-Muslim hate crimes reported in 2012, the most recent year that statistics are available. The Southern Poverty Law Center, however, estimates the total number of hate crimes for that same year at approximately 3,000, based on the likelihood of unreported or underreported incidents.
Regardless of which set of statistics is more accurate, anti-Muslim bias crimes are the fastest-growing hate crime occurrences in the United States. While most Kean students said they feel insulated on campus, some have had uncomfortable issues relating to their faith.
“When I initially came to Kean, I found that some people seemed to be uncomfortable with my hijab,” said Aamira, a junior who requested that her full name not be used, regarding the traditional Muslim headdress that she wears. “I got strange looks and a few comments about it, but I shrugged it off.”
Despite the occasional issue, Kean’s diversity has been a strong point in making Muslim students feel welcome and included on campus. The school is home to a thriving Muslim Student Association, which lists its purpose as, “to get involved as much as possible, and as often as possible with other organizations and clubs on and off campus.”
The MSA also stipulates that it is open to all students, not just Muslims, a key to fostering understanding and openness with other groups.
“Being a Muslim, you would think people would feel cautious or discriminate against you,” said Safa Basidiq, a senior and sociology major at Kean. “However, I feel more of my peers are intrigued to find out more about my culture and religion.”
Recent graduate Asher Sheikh also feels that Kean is a place where he can be outspoken about his religion.
“I think Kean is very welcoming,” said Sheikh. “There are a number of Muslim students and the Muslim Students Association is very active on campus. Therefore, it does not feel weird to be vocal about my religion.”
Being able to be vocal about one’s religion and simply avoiding biased attitudes are two different things. But on the Kean campus, Muslim students seem to feel that they can do both and still find acceptance.
“I do not necessarily feel less or more at ease on Kean than in my regular society,” said Sheikh. “There are prejudiced people in all atmospheres, but I do feel more sheltered at Kean.”
Yayona Bangura contributed to this report.