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Abiya Ahmed presents “Secularity, Politics, and Authority: ‘Islamic’ and the Making of American Muslims on Campus”

Oct 30 2019

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Jewish Studies & Education graduate student Abiya Ahmed attended the 2019 Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) Conference in St. Louis, MI on October 25-27, 2019. 

My presentation at the Society of the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) Conference in St. Louis was based on preliminary analysis and conclusions from my dissertation, titled, “Secularity, Politics, and Authority: ‘Islamic’ and the Making of American Muslims on Campus." 

Based on 2+ years of ethnographic fieldwork and interviews at a West Coast university, my presentation addressed how Muslim students engage in religious ideas, practice, and discourse on campus. Emerging themes from my data show how: 1) a “secular” institutional context; 2) identity politics, social justice movements, and liberal/conservative perspectives; and 3) ambiguity on authority mediate their ideas about “Islamic” and being Muslim on campus. 

As students undergo a “meaning-making” process (Parks 2001) to make sense of religion and religious identity, they struggle with this on two levels: the individual-institutional level, dealing with secularity, liberal paradigms, and Islamophobia; and the intra-Muslim community level, dealing with unmatched expectations of “Islamic” notions, as well as issues of gender, race, and sexuality. In some cases, however, it is easier for students to be Muslim in the secular institutional context compared to the intra-Muslim context. Additionally, students note a conflation of religion and politics on campus; they also report being clear on recognizing political rhetoric and authority, while being less clear on religious authority. 

My research thus builds on Peek’s (2005) and Mir’s (2014) work on how students “become Muslim” and negotiate identities, but with more attention to how the meaning-making process to form notions of “Islamic” normativity – mediated by politics, secularity, and crises of authority – often remains incomplete.