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houston-hall
Credit: Sophia Dai

I was exposed to a vibrant community of young Muslims from across the country and the globe for the first time at Penn. In my hometown, my family was one of few Muslim families in the area. When I arrived to Penn, I looked forward to meeting people with backgrounds and beliefs that resembled my own, and finding a community to celebrate customs with.  

The Muslim Students Association at Penn does a fantastic job of building this community with the resources it has. But the task of creating a safe religious community on campus is nearly impossible without a centralized space. While religious spaces like Hillel and the Christian Association are able to offer students a space to gather, pray, and celebrate traditions, Muslim students have no space on campus. 

Although Muslims have long faced discrimination in this country, the 2016 election ignited xenophobic and racist rhetoric in a new way. Since President Donald Trump’s election, the rate of hate crimes against Muslims has increased, tragedies like the Christchurch shooting have shaken the community, and Islamophobic policies like the Muslim ban are still in effect. At Penn, many students hope to find community, and possibly temporary shelter, from the uncertainties of the outside world. It’s important that even when it feels like this country was not built for us, we know that our campus is. 

Space is important. Penn’s cultural resources like the women’s center, the LGBT center, and the cultural houses, are essential places for marginalized students to access information and form community. 

Granted, a lot of funding for religious communities at Penn comes from outside donors, not the University. Still, Penn has an obligation to make all students feel comfortable practicing their religions on campus.

Muslim students, just by the nature of Islam, require structural space. In Islam, Muslims are required to pray five times a day. Naturally these prayer times fall in between class and club commitments, when students are not always able to return home. Currently, the only designated space for Muslim students to pray on campus is in the Spiritual and Religious Life Center (SPARC) room in Houston Hall. Otherwise, students pray in hallways, stairwells, and meditation rooms. 

For the past year, the Christian Association has allowed Muslim students to pray and hold events in its building on 37th Street. While this accommodation is incredibly generous, it should not be necessary. Muslim students should not have to “borrow” space from other religious spaces. Like other religious groups, they deserve their own space.

A physical space is especially necessary during the month of Ramadan. The holy month commemorates the revelation of the Quran and is meant to be a time of fasting, prayer, and reflection. Last year was the first year in a decade that this holiday fell during the academic school year, and it will continue to take place during the school year for the next 24 years. 

Space on campus will not exclusively offer support for Muslim students. Having more room will make it significantly easier to host learning experiences for the larger Penn community. While I do not identify as Jewish, I have participated in Hillel organized fellowships, eaten at Hillel’s dining hall, and attended numerous Shabbat dinners. Through these experiences I was able to learn more about Jewish culture and faith, as well as participate in interfaith dialogue. This programming depended on the structural resources that come with having space. 

There is undeniably a national ignorance on the Islamic faith.  According to to the Pew Research Center, 41% of Americans say Islam is more likely to encourage violence. Additionally, a 2017 poll showed that many Americans think Islam is not a part of “mainstream American society,” due to its “[inconsistency] with democracy.” These misunderstandings of Islam can only be corrected through visibility and education. 

Muslims make up less than 1% of the United States population, meaning many Americans will have limited to no interactions with a Muslim in their life. At Penn, we have a rare opportunity to educate students from across the country on Islam. Penn characterizes itself as a place for academic and cultural exploration. If that is the case, it should ensure that students are given the space to practice and showcase their faith.

UROOBA ABID is a College junior from Long Island, N.Y. studying International Relations. Her email address is uabid@sas.upenn.edu.

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