What Muslim Students Can Teach Christians
REFLECTING on more than a decade of sociological research on religion on college campuses, I am increasingly troubled by the issue of inclusiveness. Who belongs to the campus, and who does not? Who is made to feel marginal, strange or “other”?
Despite their reputation as guardians of awakening, universities are not always seen as inclusive by their students. Recent academic studies have alerted us to some worrying patterns of discrimination and exclusion.
Racism and misogyny are no longer meant to stop at campus gates, and universities across the country have had to think about how well they stand up rather than challenge entrenched prejudices. In this respect, religion plays an ambiguous role.
On the one hand, there is a lingering hypothesis that higher education disrupts or even undermines faith, through the dislocation of established communities, exposure to moral permissiveness, or the acquisition of knowledge that s ‘prove to be incompatible with religious beliefs.
There is some truth to this, and there are college employees who view religion not only as incompatible with serious learning, but as having no legitimate place on the college campus. These “tough secularists” have their equivalents in the student body, and variations in humanist / secular / atheist society have made passionate public attacks on religion on a variety of campuses in recent years.
On the other hand, universities have maintained cultures of religious inclusion to a degree that would be difficult to find elsewhere in British society. Pockets of anti-religious fanaticism are the exception rather than the norm.
Most now seem to accept that questions of faith are part of the cultural diversity that enriches the university campus. This has certainly been reflected in the empirical research I have conducted, alongside various colleagues, with academic staff and students in the UK higher education sector.
In a 2017 national student survey, for example, three-quarters agreed that religion can be an important source of moral values, even among non-religious people. Faced with the view that universities are secular spaces that function best when questions of faith are excluded, less than a third of students agree. The idea that higher education and religion are incompatible seems to be breaking down.
This is reflected in a growth in cultural diversity on campus. As the higher education sector has become increasingly commercialized, institutions have sought to recruit high-fee international students. The number of students from the Far East has increased considerably in recent years: those from mainland China now constitute the largest cohort among international students (over 100,000).
Religious diversity also reflects the larger British context. Almost a tenth of the students are Muslims (almost a quarter of a million individuals); most are British Muslims, ten percent from overseas.
NEARLY 90 percent of students agree that the university experience encourages respect and mutual understanding. The actual experience of students on campus, however, is less clear. The university experience is radically different depending on whether you study in Aberdeen, Aston, Aberystwyth or Arden (the latter of the many private providers who have recently entered the industry).
Location is an important factor. As I said, almost a tenth of the students are Muslim, but they are not evenly distributed across the UK sector. A surprisingly high proportion of Muslim students choose to study at a university close to their parental home: less than a quarter leave home to study, compared to two-thirds of Christian students and more than three-quarters of non-religious students.
A second factor is history. According to the most optimistic estimates, Christians make up just under half of the student body; some evidence suggests the number is closer to a third. However, only a minority of them are regular devotees.
And yet Christian ritual and symbolism – if not necessarily traditional piety – is ubiquitous in some of our oldest universities. At my own university, graduation ceremonies are held in Durham Cathedral. Almost two-thirds of all university chaplains are affiliated with a Christian denomination. And 15 universities make up the Group of Cathedrals: institutions that were originally created as vocational colleges and which maintain (to varying degrees) an ethic that reflects their Christian foundation.
The institutional advantage accorded to Christianity does not prevent some Christian students from feeling marginalized. The most popular student churches are those that preach an evangelical message, sometimes including moral injunctions at odds with the more permissive standards of student culture. Some even preach a distrust of conventional scholarship on the grounds that it undermines biblical truth.
Careful engagement with study feeds the silos of knowledge that I have sometimes seen among religious students over the past decade. The claims of faith and the arguments of academia can clash, but only if they are brought into intellectual conversation. One way to navigate the college experience while maintaining a conservative faith is to keep these things separate. Repeating arguments to pass exams is not the same as incorporating these ideas into your thinking.
Interestingly, this approach appears to be much more common among Christian students than among Muslims. A recent survey I administered compared the experiences of the two communities, and some unexpected comparisons emerged. Compared to their Christian peers, Muslim students are more likely to view university as a valuable opportunity to develop their faith in new ways; view religious groups as making a valuable contribution to the life of their university; and to believe that universities should integrate religion or faith into their vision of education.
And 79 percent of Muslim students say the college experience should encourage critical reflection on matters of faith. The figure is 71 percent among Christian students.
Muslim students seem particularly willing to bring their faith and academic studies into constructive conversation, a trust that is much more muted among Christians. This contradicts a common stereotype, sometimes supported by academic leaders and public commentators: that Muslims are prone to bigotry, and that their faith interferes with their ability to think critically.
In many ways, Muslim students seem more comfortable with college education than their Christian peers. It is not clear why this should be the case, but it cautions against easy assumptions about the compatibilities between a life of faith and a life of study.
Dr Mathew J. Guest is Professor of Sociology of Religion and Head of the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. His latest book, Islam on Campus: Contested Identities and Cultures of Higher Education in Britain, is published by OUP at £ 25 (Church Times Bookshop £ 22.50); 978-0-19284-467-5.