Honors course on Muslim Women’s Voices

Op-ed: Utah’s religious climate helps Muslim immigrants adapt

By Tara Goodwin, Natally Tabish, Casey Koldewyn, Allyson Berri, Maura Cheney and Savanna Williams

As part of our final project for Muslim Women’s Voices, an undergraduate course taught at the University of Utah, we conducted a research project with Muslim students currently studying at the U. The goal of this project was to better understand the experiences of Muslim students, as well as to discover what changes the university could make to accommodate them on campus. Given the current political climate we expected students to report increased feelings of discrimination and incidents of harassment but our results surprised us, revealing a more tolerant trend.

We interviewed a wide range of students, hailing from Malaysia, Pakistan, India, Egypt and the United States, with ages ranging from 17 to 34. The interviewees were fluent in a range of languages including English, Arabic, Urdu and Malay, with some speaking up to seven languages. All students interviewed were current U. students, with a majority (about 53 percent) seeking graduate degrees. Students were involved in a myriad of activities, including scientific research, student government, planning councils and the Muslim Student Association.

One of the major trends we discovered was that many of the Muslim students identified with the religious environment in Utah. Muslim students drew parallels between Islamic and Mormon values, such as restricting alcohol and dressing modestly. Many research participants further noted that they identified with the Mormon population in the state, thanks to these shared religious lifestyles.

With the prevalence of Mormonism, some interviewees felt that Utah fostered a more understanding outlook towards religiosity, especially considering the stereotypes and persecution both faiths have faced. One common theme uncovered was that Muslim students were happier in Utah than they had been in other parts of the United States, showing that Muslim students have found refuge in Utah, thanks to its largely religious population.

When it came to the U. specifically, overall the students found the campus a welcoming and tolerant community. Despite the limited food vendors accommodating halal restrictions and the lack of accessible places to pray, Muslim students felt that the University of Utah embraced their cultural differences. There were ways in which we found ourselves relating personally to the Muslim students we interviewed as well; this connection included issues such as dating difficulties and strict parents.

This information, in addition to the fact that many interviewees said their friends participated in the same activities as they did, showed us that while Muslim students at the U. do have their own differences, which make their experiences unique, they were all very similar to us non-Muslim students of this class, at the U. and throughout Utah.

Ultimately, we felt that the research we gathered dispelled many assumptions about what many might have expected to hear from Muslim students. We learned that being Muslim doesn’t encompass one’s entire identity. These students are just like us — young adults navigating university life — just with different religious beliefs than some of their peers. They have some specific concerns that we do not necessarily have to worry about ourselves, like having somewhere to pray or having adequate halal food options in the dining hall, but they are not people to be labeled as automatically different and neither can they all be lumped together. They are as diverse as any other group of people. In simpler words, we found that “Muslim” is a broad label.

The main lessons we took away from this experience were that despite political tension and talk of restricting Muslims from entering the country, Utah’s religious nature offers a tolerant, understanding atmosphere for Muslim students demonstrating just how much both Mormons and Muslims, even people of all walks-of-life, have in common. From this research, we, as Utahans, can be leaders in the nation when it comes to acceptance of Muslim communities.

Our state’s religious origins seem to have set up an atmosphere of acceptance, and this is something we should be proud of and be working to encourage elsewhere even as we strengthen our resolve to remain accepting here. There are ways in which we can be better, of course; our attention should go there as well in that work. But our interviewees have shown us how we are doing well already and that should be acknowledged and praised. Our research suggests that Utah is bucking national trends and that is something to hold on to.

Tara Godwin, Natally Tabish, Casey Koldewyn, Allyson Berri, Maura Cheney and Savannah Williams are University of Utah students.

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