Nearly 30 percent of Muslim undergraduates do not feel that they belong at Harvard.
I was one of 26 Harvard affiliates whose positive Covid-19 test was later invalidated. While in isolation, I could not access food other than what Harvard provided me. The menu options were limited by my halal dietary restriction and personal preference, so some days, I was left eating macaroni and cheese for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. On a day when I could not eat anything on the menu and I requested macaroni and cheese, my order was messed up and the only food delivered to me was some chips with guacamole.
Limited halal dining is just one of the many ways that Harvard fails its Muslim students.
According to Harvard’s Pulse Survey, only 61 percent of Muslim students feel like they belong at Harvard, compared to 70 to 79 percent of students of other faiths. This stark difference in the sense of belonging between Muslims and those of other religious groups raises concerns about the inclusion of Muslims on Harvard’s campus. However, little has been done or is being done to decrease institutional and interpersonal discrimination against Muslims.
Harvard University Dining Services’s daily menu options open to all students are consistently limited for Muslim students because they often contain alcohol and or use non-halal meat. Up until this semester, very limited halal options were provided to Muslim students. Around two decades ago, HUDS gained some halal options, but since then some options have been removed, leaving grilled chicken as the only guaranteed daily halal option since 2015.
Though HUDS has increased the available menu options this semester, the experience is nowhere near as robust or as reliable as regular dining, even after twenty years of student advocacy. The halal menu items this semester resemble the descriptions of regular dining. However, no matter the description, the meals are variations of grilled chicken, fish, hamburger patties, hot dogs, or strips of beef. Given my continual disappointment, I am unfazed and unsurprised when anything with “meatballs” is just a cut-up hamburger patty or when “chicken fingers” are cut-up pieces of the same grilled chicken that was offered to us before advocating for change. On the surface, the halal menu descriptions have changed. However, nothing has actually fundamentally improved for Muslim students’ dining experience.
As if dietary disappointments were not enough, Harvard’s spiritual support for Muslim students is nascent and limited. We currently have two Muslim chaplains, Chaplains Khalil Abur-Rashid and Samia Omar: Imam Abdur-Rashid was hired in July of 2017 as Harvard’s first full-time Muslim chaplain, and Ustadha Samia is the first Muslim woman chaplain at Harvard. Despite the growing Muslim community, large Harvard Islamic Society, and rampant Islamophobia that has only escalated from 9/11 and Trump’s presidency, Harvard’s first official spiritual full-time faculty support of Muslim students came four decades after the community’s initial growth.
Similarly, unlike Harvard’s commitment to Christian and Jewish students by providing them prominent above-ground spaces including Memorial Church and Hillel, Harvard provides no such space for Muslim students.
Since 1993, Muslim students have been hidden away in Canaday’s basement, given a small space — a walk-in closet — for their religious practices and traditions. For the Friday community prayer, the Harvard Muslim community congregates in Lowell Lecture Hall. So while there are spaces for Muslims on campus, they are limited and hidden, shared by both undergraduate and graduate students.
Without a multicultural center or another center for religious minorities, Harvard demonstrates no structural commitment to these groups. We are told that we are not even worthy of above-ground physical spaces.
Further, many spaces at Harvard are not free of blatantly Islamophobic sentiments or microaggressions fueled by misunderstanding and bigotry. Even at one of the world’s leading institutions, Muslim students continue to have to respond to bigoted claims that Islam is oppressive and backwards, and are sometimes seen as simply providing an educational experience for our peers to understand so-called “Islamic” or “Islamist” terrorism. A number of times, my peers and I have been told we are oppressed by Islam, and our criticisms of Islamophobia are dismissed. Harvard supposedly attracts the smartest people in the world, yet too many fail to grasp the basic tenets of Islam and apply a more nuanced understanding of Muslims.
If I wanted to confide in someone about these many challenges of being a Muslim at Harvard, I should be able to go to Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services. Yet, as a Muslim, I will not find anyone there who shares the same faith.
As co-president of the Harvard Islamic Society, I ask the Harvard administration and the greater Harvard community to take concrete steps to remedy the stigmatization of Muslims in our community.
Harvard must, first, expand and integrate halal dining. Second, hire more Muslim therapists. Third, provide larger prayer and social spaces for Muslims. And fourth give significant resources to educate Harvard students and faculty about Islamophobia. Throughout this process, Harvard should provide transparency and accessible and consistent avenues for feedback.
Harvard, do not overlook members of your community. Show us that we were not just admitted to be put on diversity websites.
Show us we belong.
Aisha C. Abdelhamid ’23, a Sociology Concentrator in Leverett House, is Co-President of the Harvard Islamic Society.
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