Muslim Students, Faculty Reassured of Inclusion

By Gail Hairston

(Feb. 19, 2015) ‒ The University of Kentucky Muslim Student Association, an organization with a sustained 43-year history on campus, was honored last week at a reception hosted by President Eli Capilouto at Maxwell House, the university president’s official campus home.

“The idea behind the reception was to make a statement to the Muslim students and faculty at UK that they are welcome here and also to make a statement to the UK community that UK's commitment to diversity includes Muslims,” said the student organization’s faculty adviser Ihsan Bagby, associate professor of Arabic and Islamic studies in the UK College of Arts and Sciences.

In December, UK President Eli Capilouto contacted Bagby, an expert on the American Muslim community, to begin planning for the event, months before last week’s tragic events in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that took the lives of three young Muslims.

“The students were ecstatic at meeting the president and hearing his message of inclusiveness,” said Bagby. “It is one thing to hear a general statement in favor of diversity, but it is another when the president addresses you personally and says that you are welcome here.”

Students agreed with Bagby's assessment of the event.

“Honestly, I did not know what to expect going into the event when I initially was told about it in early January,” said Emaan Qureshi, president of the UK Muslim Student Association.

“One thing that stood out was Dr. Capilouto's words about the three young Muslim students in Chapel Hill who were murdered the day before the reception took place,” she said. “After that, I could feel a sense of relief had taken over the room. Many MSA members, including myself, felt personally connected to what happened in North Carolina. The similarities between us and the three young lives lost made this tragedy hit too close to home.

“As a student on any college campus,” said Qureshi, “feeling safe should never be in question, and I know that after hearing Dr. Capilouto acknowledge and condemn this act of hate helped many students feel much more comfortable.”

Bagby said Capilouto talked with “almost every participant,” asking about his or her background. Students, in turn, asked the president about his background. Bagby said Capilouto talked about growing up in Alabama and knowing what it is like to be a member of a religious minority in America.

“The University of Kentucky is fortunate to have a diverse campus population – in terms of culture, background, ethnicity, identity, religion and perspective,” said President Capilouto. “But exploring the richness of our unique identity and celebrating the array of understandings at UK requires that our campus be inclusive, safe and supportive of all people. That goal is one without end – it is a constant journey and one we are deeply devoted to in all of our endeavors and priorities.”

In a brief message to the gathering, Bagby said, “It is important for people of good will to speak out against discrimination and negative stereotypes against Muslims, because a sizeable percentage of the American public does hold negative views of Islam and Muslims. Muslim students also have a responsibility to counteract negative stereotypes by being involved at UK and the American society as good citizens who promote the common good.”

While Qureshi said she learned that such events are “meaningful in confirming in our hearts and heads the mutual commitment to diversity,” she hoped “the president learned how large of a presence Muslim students have on campus and that we really do appreciate and can all benefit through student and administrative communication.”

“I think the students were genuinely impressed by the president's warm gesture of having the reception,” she added, “as evidenced by the numerous selfies that they took with him.”

Founded in 1971, the Muslim Student Association endeavors to make Islamic teachings known to interested non-Muslims, to promote friendly relations between Muslims and non-Muslims as well as to promote unity and joint action among the UK Muslim community. The group also strives to educate, mobilize and coordinate students to struggle against injustice and oppression. They conduct social, cultural, religious and other activities in the best traditions of Islam, including community service events at the UK Children’s Hospital and local homeless shelters. With more than 60 active members, MSA includes undergraduate to graduate level students. For more information, visit http://sweb2008.uky.edu/StudentOrgs/MSA/Templates/homepage.php

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