This talk was given by Professor Jacqueline Stevenson, Sheffield Hallam University, at Choral Contemplation in Somerville Chapel on May 26. Professor Stevenson is a sociologist who researches and influences policy on diversity in higher education.
“Because if you need me to prove my humanity
I’m not the one that’s not human. “
– Extract from This is not a humanising poem by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan
This is not a humanising poem evidences Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s frustrations in feeling forced to write poetry that will correct our preconceptions of Muslims, or to appear endearing and human in order to be accepted. She does not want to write a ‘Muslims are like us’ poem.
At the same time, the poem highlights the insidious discourses around terrorism and Islamophobia faced by young Muslims, as well as the hardships of being an ethnic minority in post-Brexit Britain.
Muslims experience the greatest economic disadvantages of any group in UK society. Almost half of the UK’s Muslims live in the the most deprived 10% of local authority districts. They are more likely than any other group to be unemployed, under-employed or, if in work, low paid and less likely to be in senior or managerial positions than their peers.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the social and economic disadvantage they experience, Muslim students are over-represented in higher education – although they continue to be discriminated against at the point of access to university, are more likely to leave early from their studies, and are less likely to leave with a first or 2:1 than most other groups.
Over the last five years I have researched the experiences of Muslim students, seeking to determine why, despite high levels of ambition and educational successes at school, their social mobility as well as their on-campus experience is so low.
In doing so I have interviewed over one hundred Muslims students, including those seeking to access higher education, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate students studying across a number of different universities.
Of course because of their ethnic, linguistic and cultural differences as well as significant variations in their migration histories and patterns, the UK’s Muslim students comprise a multi-diverse group of communities. It is therefore impossible to make generic claims.
It is also by no means the case that all Muslim students’ experiences of higher education are negative ones – in full or even in part. Indeed, there are many examples of high levels of satisfaction, enjoyment of higher education, and positive staff-student, or student-student peer relationships, whilst many of those interviewed did not see themselves as being marginalised or discriminated against because of their identity as Muslims
In addition, of those who did express dissatisfaction, the negative experiences they describe are shared by many non-Muslim students – such as those who live at home whilst studying; part-time or mature learners; those first in family to access higher education; minority ethnic students who are not Muslim; or students from other, non-Muslim, religious groups.
Overall, however, most of those I interviewed expressed some level of concern about their experiences which arose precisely because they are Muslim.
There are three key factors which frame their experiences: first, is the threat to the UK posed by the growth of Islamist fundamentalism on campus; second the rise of the far right, anti-immigration sentiment and Islamophobia; and finally the commitment to secularity on campus.
Much of the contemporary discourse around religion on the UK campus draws on a post-9/11 ‘moral panic’ relating to the growth of fundamentalism and global terrorism. Alarmist discussions about ‘Muslims’, and Muslim students, are pervasive, with the language of newspapers at best embroidered and at worst inflammatory.
Since the bombings of 11 September 2001 in New York and 7 July 2005 in London, UK policy makers have become increasingly concerned that universities are seed-beds for the growth of religious (a.k.a. Muslim) fundamentalism, and that they may have played a role in educating those Muslims who have participated in major acts of atrocity.
Ever-increasing guidance (the Prevent duty) is being provided to HE institutions on how to tackle possible extremism and prevent people being drawn into terrorism, introduced as part of the government’s post-9/11 counter-terrorism strategy.
In relation to Muslim students in particular, the Prevent strategy is driven by concerns that, of those convicted of Islamist terrorist-related events in the last decade, according to the Home Office, ‘just over one third of the British citizens and just under one third of the total…had attended university or a higher education institute’.
Moreover, the terrorist events that have taken place over the UK since 9/11 have, it is argued, allowed the media carte blanche to construct Muslim students solely within a narrow and negative framework and vilify them as a threat to the social and moral order.
The tabloid newspapers in the UK, for example, are littered with claims that ‘leading Islamic extremists have “infiltrated” universities on a widespread basis’, that ‘top universities foster extremism’, and that ‘36% of our universities [are] training Muslim terrorists’.
The Prevent duty requires each higher education institution to assess where and how their students might be at risk of being drawn into terrorism and to set out the actions they will take to mitigate this risk.
The apparent threat posed by Muslims, however, is also the direct cause of attacks on Muslims.
Following significant terrorist incidents, attacks on Muslims in particular rise sharply. For example, there was a 475% rise in anti-Muslim street attacks in the wake of the 2016 EU referendum, and a 700% increase in the week following the Manchester Arena attack.
These incidences occur even when the attacks happen outside of the UK. For example the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes reported across Britain increased by nearly 600% in the week after a white supremacist killed worshippers at two New Zealand mosques earlier this year.
Across the UK, there has been an increase in abuse of religious minorities, violence, harassment of women over religious dress, religiously motivated mob violence, religion-related terrorist violence and sectarian violence.
It is not surprising then that Manzoor-Khan writes,
“When my mother texts me too after BBC news alerts
‘Are you safe? Let me know you’re home okay?’
She means safe from the incident, yes,
but also safe from the after-affects”
-Extract from This is not a humanising poem
Assistant commissioner Neil Basu, the head of UK counterterror policing, has voiced his concern over rising hate crime and said it could be a also “proxy measure” for the rising far-right threat, including that from the self-named alt-right, or alternative right. The alt-right is, of course, an umbrella term for a far-right movement which joins together disparate nationalist and populist groups associated with the white identity cause/movement.
The ideological foundations of the alt-right movement are based on, and combine, contempt for liberal multiculturalism and mainstream conservatism, as well as white nationalism, misogyny, antisemitism, and to a lesser extent homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia. The alt-right is a loosely organised network that takes full advantage of social media and the work of internet trolls.
Although it has its roots in fascism, anti-Semitism, anti-globalisation, anti-liberalism, and the radical rejection of establishment politics in the USA, it has become a right-wing populist phenomenon extending across Europe, Australia and elsewhere with the toxic use of social media used to spread conspiracy theories relating to Jews, Muslims, immigrants and others.
The political response to both Muslims and immigrants has also, in part, grown out of the ideology and racist discourses of white victimhood wherein white people perceive themselves to be the victims of discrimination or oppression.
Over the last decade, the fallacy that ethnic minorities, particular migrants are ‘taking the jobs’ of (white) British people has been pedaled across much of the populist press and related political discourse, which helped shape debates around the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.
As it is unsurprisingly then that, a result of discourses around the threat faced from Islamic fundamentalism on campus; pejorative discourses around migrants; the implementation of the government’s Prevent agenda; as well as debates around free speech, gender segregation, or religious clothing, that Muslims students, in particular, feel highly visible.
Of course Christian, Jewish, Sikh, and Pagan students have all reported, variously, criticism and censure in attempting to undertake legitimate religious activities on campus, or have faced anti-religious sentiment and threats of, or actual, violence. However, it is Muslim students who have experienced some of the most insidious attacks on them or their faith.
Because of the ‘moral panic’ around fundamentalism, the lack of understanding about Islam, and insufficient religious literacy, many Muslims experience intended or unintended racism or Islamophobia on campus. This ranges from casual micro-aggression to overt discrimination, intolerance or even hatred.
It is concerning however, that this is frequently unchecked and unchallenged. In particular, the conflating of debates around Islamism with Islam, and of terrorism with being Muslim, is keenly felt by many, particularly young Muslim men who feel that they are constantly being seen as a threat.
Many Muslim students also report that university staff or other students (and indeed the general population) are scared of Muslims, and are unwilling to engage in conversations with them, particularly conversations about Islam or Muslims.
As result they report a level of ignorance that allows stereotypes to perpetuate – such as the belief that young Muslim women lack aspiration because they won’t work post-marriage, or that most older Muslim women can’t speak English.
It is not just in relation to Islam, of course, that it is concerning that the place of religion on campus is rarely discussed, or that research into the experiences of religious students is notably absent from prevailing discourses relating to higher education policy and practice. Indeed, whilst social and ethnic diversity on campus is seen as a cause for ‘celebration’, religious diversity is largely unrecognised and unacknowledged.
In part this can be accounted for by the fact that religious students, or staff, are a less easily identifiable group than those from different socio-economic groups, or ethnic backgrounds. Moreover, religion is often regarded not as a relational system, but as an affiliation category that can be easily divested or strategically shaped by actors according to context, rather than a status category – such as race, ethnicity, gender or class).
Within the UK context the absence of policy and research relating to religious students in higher education also, and critically, arises from a prevailing and overwhelming academic commitment to the secularity of UK higher education.
Whilst both the Civic universities of the 19th Century, and the ‘new’ universities of the 20th Century were founded as secular organisations, UK higher education today is not, of course, wholly secular. Across many universities, Theology and Divinity courses continue to recruit although the numbers are falling, whilst Islamic Studies is now offered across a range of universities.
In addition, some universities such as Oxford and Cambridge remain overtly Anglican in nature, with the chaplains and the chapels regarded as essential and the language of the academies infused with religious terminology.
More overtly, a group of sixteen UK universities that began in the nineteenth century as Anglican, Methodist or Catholic teacher training colleges have come together to form the Cathedrals Group, stating that their mission is ‘a commitment to serving the public good that springs from our faith-based values’.
And even within overwhelmingly secular universities, there are also disciplinary differences, with both the sciences and the social sciences predominantly secular and the arts and humanities more mixed. In addition, the whole sector revolves around a Christian calendar.
However, the notion that higher education has become a secularised space, has contributed to the rendering of religious staff and students as largely invisible across most of the sector. This is particularly true for non-Christian religions and can make many religious students, including Muslims, feel invisible, ignored, overlooked, undervalued or disregarded.
And yet, around two thirds of UK higher education students define themselves as having a religion or belief – although many consider themselves to be non-practising. Over 40% state that they are Christian, followed by just over 9% that they are Muslim.
These numbers do not just matter in the abstract, however. They also point to the problem with a major assumption about religion in universities: that it is a concern for only a minority of people.
The opposite is of course true: religion is, to different degrees, part of the lives and identities of many students; and religious students, both home and international, are present on the UK’s campuses – yet their presence is often unrecorded.
This means that academics and policy makers know little about how the university experience affects religious, or other, beliefs or practices; how religious students and staff are accepted, or not, by their non-religious peers or by those from religions different from their own.
And yet policy makers continue to develop institutional policy and practice centred on religious students despite a dearth of information. No other institutional policy making has been, or continues to be, based on such a limited evidence base.
It is of further concern, however, that the invisibility of religion on campus operates at a time of the growing religious intolerance I have already referred to.
The consequences of being both highly visible whilst also simultaneously invisible on campus had two profound outcomes for many of the Muslim students I have spoken to.
Firstly, it threatened their sense of belonging on campus. And secondly, it shaped the extent to which they felt they mattered or not to those around them.
Belonging relates to feelings of connectedness, attachment to other people, or places. It is more than a need for simple social contact, however: rather it involves active processes of social contact and interaction which allow us to develop shared understandings of who ‘we’ are.
For most of us, we only know we don’t belong when we don’t belong; we can otherwise go about our everyday lives without having to pay much attention to how we do it.
For many of the Muslim students I interviewed, however, their everyday world was experienced as problematic, and was structured by power relations which inhibited their sense of belonging. This included negative comments from both students and staff on their clothing, their practices and their beliefs.
The absence of easily accessible prayer rooms, a lack of halal food, no account taken of Ramadan when timing lectures or exams. Being singled out by security guards, especially if carrying a rucksack, despite white peers carrying the same bags, and so on…
All of these instances worked to make the students feel they didn’t belong on campus, never mind the actual accounts of Islamophobia or hate crime that some students described. Moreover, if and when they reported such events they felt that the universities didn’t know how to handle them.
In addition, Muslim students are also put on the defensive more than people of other faiths, to answer for events for which they are not personally responsible – such as terrorist attacks. Even in supportive environments, such as university, Muslims have to be vocal about their condemnation of ‘events’, in ways that White individuals would not be required to do in the same situations (such as the Islamophobic attack on the Finsbury Park mosque).
To feel a sense of belonging we also need to feel that we ‘matter’ to those around us. This is the subjective perception that we make a difference to others in our lives, and it is essential to our sense of self and our sense of identity.
There are four elements fundamental to students developing and sustaining a sense of mattering: attention, importance, appreciation and dependence.
Whilst the most elementary form of mattering is the feeling that we command the interest or notice of another person, many of the students, as I have already described, felt that they came to attention only in relation to discourses around fundamentalism.
In addition, because religion is largely not valorised, they felt that a fundamental aspect of their identity was rendered seemingly unimportant. Islam and the contribution that Islam has made to the world was not appreciated, and was only considered important in relation to the threat it is considered to pose to others.
Moreover, because of the ways in which they felt isolated from their peers, many students lacked a sense of inter-dependency which compounded feelings of low self-esteem or sense of self-worth.
Of course, as I have already noted, many Muslim students do not experience discrimination or prejudice, or outright Islamophobia- or they do not offer accounts of doing so – and, as a result, may not struggle to develop a sense of belonging on campus.
Other students faced ignorance, prejudice or discrimination but challenged these where they encountered them.
For others, however, incidences of Islamophobia or racism, institutional failure to recognise Muslim identity, support isolated minority students or promote peer integration affect their confidence. Micro-aggressions in particular impacted on self-esteem, motivation and aspiration and resulted in disengaging from campus, struggling to integrate, or feeling demotivated. Of further concern, however, is that some of the students, on occasion, sought to hide, or down play, their Muslim identity in order to try and fit in.
So what do we do?
Recognising, debating and researching religion and higher education can, and does, polarise opinion. However, religion and Islam are incontestably present on campus and, therefore, whatever our personal beliefs and opinions, we as students or scholars need to engage with it.
It would be tempting to conclude by saying that policy change is the answer to improving the experiences of Muslim students, but it is just one answer. Policy changes such as religious equality legislation have aided students and staff seeking facilities for prayer or religious diets.
Conversely, policies held by some universities that require visiting speakers to be ‘vetted’ for signs of extremism are quite possibly increasing religion-related animosity, so a relaxation of these policies would quite possibly ease religion-related tensions.
But more importantly, Muslim students should feel safe on campus; to feel that they belong and that they matter to us. We need to ensure that there are safe spaces for conversations about religion, that staff and students feel religiously literature.
And we also need to stop requiring Muslim students to change in order to fit in. We need to stop asking them to refrain from wearing hijabs, or stop carrying rucksacks. We need to stop asking them to be ‘more like us’, so that we can feel they are relatable.
For as Manzoor-Khan states,
“If you need me to prove my humanity
I’m not the one that’s not human.”
This talk draws on the following references:
Aune, K. and Stevenson, J. (Eds), (2017) Religion and Higher Education, London: Routledge/ Society for Research into Higher Education Book series
Gelot, L. (2009), On the Theological Origins and Character of Secular International Politics: towards Post-secular Dialogue, PhD thesis, Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University.
Gilliat-Ray, S. (2000), Religion in Higher Education: the Politics of the Multi-faith Campus, Aldershot: Ashgate.
Rosenberg, M. (1985). Self-concept and psychological well-being in adolescence. The development of the self, pp. 205-246.
Rosenberg, M., and McCullough, B. C. (1981). Mattering: Inferred significance and mental health among adolescents. Research in Community & Mental Health, 2, pp.163-182.
Schlossberg, N. K. (1989). Marginality and mattering: Key issues in building community. New Directions for Student Services, 48, 5-15.
Stevenson, J. (2018), Muslim Students in UK Higher Education: Issues of Inequality and Inequity. London: Bridge Institute
Tovar, E. (2013), A Conceptual Model on the Impact of Mattering, Sense of Belonging, Engagement/Involvement, and Socio-Academic Integrative Experiences on Community College Students’ Intent to Persist. Claremont Graduate University Theses & Dissertations. Paper 81. Retrieved from http://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgu_etd/81