Forty years ago, Muslim students gathered to conduct prayer and worship at each other’s homes, creating the Muslim Student Association (MSA).
From there, the Muslim community continued to grow, as did the MSA. The Islamic Community of Bryan-College Station, an organization with close ties to the MSA was formed in 1988, and they built a white mosque called the Islamic Center.
Across the nation, minorities attending college struggle to find acceptance. Discrimination and a lack of support and representation lead many student minorities to feel unsafe or unwelcome in college. Muslim students have often been targets of discrimination and violence across college campuses with hostility not only stemming from fellow students but professors as well, according to The Atlantic article “Being Muslim on Campus” by Tyler Bishop. College Station is no stranger to violence toward Muslim minorities, according to The Eagle’s article “Gunshots hit Islamic Center; CS and FBI investigating,” in July 2016, as the mosque was targeted by gunfire early in the morning.
Acting as a catalyst, MSA helps Muslim students have a voice when it’s challenging to find one, said Nooran Riaz, MSA vice president.
“Personally, it’s nice when you walk across campus, and you see someone who looks like you or you feel like you can relate to,” said Riaz. “It makes you feel a little less alone, especially in a college as big as A&M. There are so many people, and you’re just looking for someone to connect with, someone to hang out with, and trying to find your group of friends.”
Originally from Saudi Arabia, MSA Secretary Maryam Ather said it was a significant change when she moved to Texas to be surrounded by fewer Muslims, though she said she expected more challenges than she faced.
“I only experience a few little challenges, but the MSA is a smaller group compared to other organization because it’s just Muslim students [and] it’s harder to expand,” Ather said. “There are a lot of people who aren’t open to learning about Islam and what we’re trying to talk about. You have to be open to people disagreeing with you, but you have to keep an open mind as well as the other person to have a good conversation.”
MSA outreach officer Hana Farid said the organization tables in the Memorial Student Center to allow passersby the opportunity to ask about Islam, though sometimes the experiences she has aren’t pleasant.
On occasion, a table with a sign that says “Ask us about Islam” draws divisive reactions, but knowing there are students who are interested to learn more is what Islam is really about, Farid said.
“I think it’s been one of my challenges because it’s a scary thing to do but being able to have the opportunity to do it is so great, and you really see the difference at the end of the day,” Farid said.
By holding socials, the MSA tries to bring together Muslims and non-Muslims to break existing barriers, said Cameron Garcia, MSA education officer.
“One of the things we do is called dawah, which is essentially evangelism,” Garcia said. “We hold dawah tables bi-weekly in the MSC and multiple times we have definitely come across, for lack of a better term, aggressive people. The MSA responds by showing kindness and bringing the truth out about what we believe to break those misconceptions.”
The organization’s goal is to create a safe environment to give a voice to Muslim students and assist them in growing in their faith, academics and personal life, said Shroq Kesbeh, MSA community officer. Although not every member has experienced discrimination, the MSA has helped in other areas as well, said Kesbeh.
“I personally haven’t had any issues where I was [a] challenge just because I wear the hijab or because I’m Muslim or Arab, so I really can’t say much about that,” said Kesbeh. “What I can say is last year we did sexual assault training. I think it’s really important for [a] woman to have that training because you never know this world is crazy, so one way the organization helped with that aspect is by partnering up with university police and throwing that on.”
Having a place to go while being a minority on campus while spreading awareness about Islam, and dismissing the misconceptions is the MSA’s goal and hope for the future, said MSA president Haani Tai.
“I hope to be more involved with more on-campus activities,” said Tai. “Truly getting involved with the traditions so that the other organizations and people can see the MSA isn’t just a minority group, not just a bunch of two-percenters, that we’re doing our best to be a part of this campus, and be an Aggie.”