Muslims from abroad enrolling in Catholic Colleges

First off, since a few of my recent posts have discussed Muslim-styles of dress, I want to include a cool link from islamophobia-watch, that the Governor of California has just signed into law a provision stressing that people cannot be denied front-line or customer service positions in jobs due to their manner of dress, with particular reference to Muslims and Sikhs.  On the one hand, I’m a bit sad to think that in this day and age, we *need* a law stressing that, but on the other, it’s good to see a state government doing something positive regarding the public practice of religion.

In other news, it’s back-to-school time, which I assume is the reason for a recent article in the New York Times, discussing that more and more foreign Muslims who come to the US to study are enrolling in Catholic colleges and universities.  The article is problematic for a number of reasons – it doesn’t do a terribly wide sweep of Catholic colleges and universities, to see how wide-spread this development is, and there is some strange ingrained Islamophobia in the middle, in particular the comment that, “some of the women land at Catholic schools more or less accidentally — some are married and simply enroll where their husbands are going” – to the best of my knowledge, no university or college in the US offers a couples’ enrollment program, so the women would at least have to *apply* to the school and get in, and the implication that this is unique to Muslim couples is laughable (in my own experience as a graduate student, I knew numerous couples who attended grad school together, and although couples’ enrollment is not a thing, couples’ hiring is an unspoken reality of the university system, one that is often for the worst, I’m sad to say).

There’s also the larger problem that a school’s religious denomination doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing from one school to the next.  In my ten years[1] of college education, I’ve attended three universities: the University of Chicago is officially Baptist, but from my experience of the school, including having taken classes in the divinity school, it’s largely a secular institution; the London School of Oriental and African Studies is officially non-denominational, but because of the subjects studied there, its student population is often largely religious, including having a large number of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, and St Peter’s College, Oxford is Anglican, and the chapel does end up serving something of a central role in the college, although there are many agnostics and atheists there, as well (and the head of the theology faculty at the college is Catholic).  If you were to just read the prospectuses of the three schools, you’d get the idea that Chicago and Oxford are the religious ones, but from my experiences as a student at all three, actually Chicago was the least religious, and SOAS much more religious, because of its student body and faculty.  So ‘a Catholic college’ can mean a lot of different things.

Edited to add: my fellow alum (and former roomie!) Atari has pointed out to me that Chicago no longer identifies as Baptist, but hopefully my point is still apparent!

As it happens, in the last ten years, I’ve been a student, lecturer, teacher and university administrator, and it’s in the latter role that this article speaks to me the most – I think the author got unfortunately hung up on the ‘Catholic’ bit of the schools’ self-descriptions and missed the more important term – ‘small’.

He does note that one of the draws for the students is “the accommodations Dayton has made, like setting aside spaces for them to pray — a small room for daily use, and two larger ones for Fridays — and installing an ablution room for the traditional preprayer washing of hands and feet.”  I think this probably actually has more to do with why these schools have started attracting Muslim students, especially largely through word-of-mouth recruitment.

In my experience as a university administrator, universities and colleges are often very un-accommodating to students.  They often can’t be accommodating – there are only so many dorms, there are only so many on-campus buildings, and a huge portion of most schools’ incomes come from conferences, alumni and outside events, and so, unfortunately, practicalities of day-to-day student life often take a backseat.  Religious colleges – that is, colleges that have an internal religious denomination that is used to dictate college policy – are unusual in that they are already in the habit of making accommodations for students and their religious obligations.  If a small community of students want a prayer space or a place for ablutions, I can see many universities dismissing the request, most likely citing ‘fairness’ as the reason – that it would take resources away from the general student body – but in reality, it’s more just that it’s not a huge priority[2], whereas the administration at a Catholic college might be more willing to consider the request, as being already in the habit of considering similar requests from the Catholic students on campus.

I think part of the reason for the focus on Catholic colleges, as opposed to any other denominations, is probably less to do with Catholic practice than that Catholic colleges and universities are among the last remaining religious schools that offer general education.  By comparison, there are hundreds of conservative and evangelical Protestant colleges in the US, but these schools often only offer degrees in church-related subjects – for example, the Dallas Theological Seminar, which rather famously only allows women to major in ‘ministerial assistance’ (aka ‘being a minister’s wife’) or children’s education (aka ‘Sunday school teacher’), as the only ‘acceptable’ religious roles for a woman, according to the conservative evangelical Protestant tradition.  These schools are designed not to offer anything to a non-member of the tradition.

There are historical reasons why the schools have evolved this way – the evangelical movement in particular has evolved a fantastic antagonism with general education in the last century – but it’s still a bit sad, when you think about it.  I’m happy to know that Muslim women living abroad have found a welcoming environment to pursue their studies in the US, but as the school year starts up anew, it’s rather heartbreaking to think that there are probably thousands of evangelical Protestant young people in this country considering college, who are faced with having to choose between their love for any subject that isn’t theology or ministerial studies and the public practice of their religion.  I have no doubt that a solution could be found pretty easily, but it doesn’t seem to be a conversation anyone wants to have.

[1] Holy crap, I’ve been in school for ten years and I’m not even done yet!

[2] I was always impressed by Chicago on that count – the Muslims Students Association used the college chapel for Friday prayers.  Supposedly the university gave them the right when a Muslim student reminded someone in the university’s administration that the chapel was supposed to be the property of the students – thus all students, even after they graduate, have the right to marry in the chapel for free – and the administration agreed that the Muslim students should have as much right to the chapel as the rest of the student body.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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14 Responses to Muslims from abroad enrolling in Catholic Colleges

  1. ataralas says:

    Psst. The U(C) is not officially Baptist. It was founded by a group from the American Baptists, but has never been run by a denomination in the same way that say, Davidson is Presbyterian or Georgetown is Catholic. The Div School is also explicitly non-denominational, and candidates pursuing an M.Div through the Div School must acquire additional training through their denomination pursuant to their ordination requirements.

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