Practically every university or college has an association or club run by Muslim students. The spirit of these organizations is similar to that of most others on campuses: to spread a certain idea and attract new members. Even the most basic Muslim student organization, when considering the discrepancy in Muslim student population at universities, seeks to enlighten both Muslims and non-Muslims about Islamic beliefs. With Islam being depicted in an utmost unflattering light through the media, political rhetoric spreading awareness about Islam can make a huge difference in establishing a foundation of understanding and dialogue in the West. When we attempt to propagate Islam in the west and in higher education settings, we must be mindful of our audience and the message we direct both overtly and covertly.
These organizations are run by students who, in addition to balancing an already demanding academic and work life, take on the challenges of spreading Islam on their campus. Their efforts must be applauded and supported. However, there remain shortcomings that are consistently found across the board when it comes to Islam on our campuses. Below is a list, though not fully inclusive, of steps that can make for more efficient Islamic awareness in academic settings.
Brush Up on Your Islamic Knowledge
Many people you will encounter on campus ranging from instructors to students have many questions about Islam. It would be counterproductive to charge a brother or sister whose own knowledge of Islam is limited to complete out-reach efforts with non-Muslims. Like a tape played over and over again, it is bound to happen at every event where a guest asks one of the organization members a basic question about Islam and the member is unable to answer it. While some questions are challenging for your average layman to answer, it is unacceptable for a member of an Islamic organization to not be able to field basic questions about the five pillars of Islam, Hijab, God, and the Prophet Muhammad. In other instances, we have seen members provide incorrect answers. To avoid an awkward and embarrassing situation such as this, make sure members have some informational pamphlets or handouts on Islamic beliefs.
This is a multifaceted suggestion and it deals with making sure our signs and event banners are in English, not Arabic, Persian or Urdu. Additionally, we need to make sure we don't use words our audience is not familiar with. While most of us know what words like "Alhamdulillah" or "Masha'Allah" mean, to a non-Muslim these raise serious question marks. It's easy to use "Praise God" or "Thank God" around others. It merely shows you and your organization are sensitive to diversity and aware of your audience's prior knowledge.
Are You Welcoming?
Islam is already misunderstood in the west. It doesn't help our cause when we all huddle around each other at events like lost children. Think about the message we are giving across to potential members, both Muslims and Non-Muslims about the organization. When everyone acts like one big clique, it doesn't invite nor encourage many people to join your organization or even approach you with a question. It's understood that many people in Islamic organizations are friends, which is very uplifting to hear, but it also means you see your friends enough and subsequently you can sit by a new member at an event or at least greet them kindly.
The True Message of Islam
Between planning events, meetings, and making everything work behind the scenes, things can become hectic. However, it is very easy for us to lose track of why we are doing this work. No, it is not for the sake of holding power. No, it is not so we can seclude ourselves from others and claim superiority. No, it is not so we can put it on our resume to prove we are student leaders. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. It is also the most misrepresented religion and much of this misrepresentation comes from our actions. The Prophet Muhammad was sent as a mercy to mankind and with the most incredible of manners. This is how Islam spread so quickly. It was through the kindness and respect shown by the Prophets, Imams, and messengers towards people. It is very difficult and questionable to state that we are here to spread Islam but unable to display Islam in how we speak and interact with others. Islamic work should never become an ends-over-means project. The process is equally as important as the result.
Pick Speakers Well
We mentioned above that most college students aren't scholars on Islam after they get out of biology 100. This creates a substantial need for qualified and educated speakers and guests to lead our events on campus. Who should we invite? What are the criteria for deciding who speaks and who doesn't? Who decides this? Unfortunately, there are many speakers who are not invited to our events because they are not "big names". The over-reliance on one speaker can severely impair our exposure to Islamic ideas and values. Just as plenty of effort goes into the event title, time, food servings, and so on, much thought must go into our speakers. The demographic student organizations cater to is extremely impressionable and it's our duty to make sure the right people are doing the speaking.
The above list is certainly not complete and as our community continues to establish itself in non-Muslim countries, it will need to be expanded on. However, the issues identified and suggestions provided are universal and small changes can allow future administration of these organizations to lead it in a more Islamic and effective way.