By Becky Wilson
Muslims are currently at the centre of a heated debate. Following the emergence of extreme right parties like UKIP, the recent attacks in Paris, and the huge leap in reports of ethnically-motivated violence, religious and ethnic minorities have been subject to scrutiny on the world stage.
In conversations with some Muslim undergraduates, Palatinate learned about their daily life in a secular university, and whether the global rise of intolerance has penetrated the Durham bubble.
“Durham University was a bit of a shock to me”, says one Muslim student, who wishes to remain anonymous.
“I knew there would be a lot of people from particularly sheltered backgrounds, but I wasn’t prepared for the extent to which people lacked experiences from different cultures and religions.
Another Muslim student agreed. “Some people here seem to be unaware, or unfamiliar with the concept of a British Muslim, or a British, non-white person. The general demographic at Durham is people who probably haven’t had much contact with British ethnic minorities. It’d be different at a university in London, or Birmingham for instance.
This year, 79.6% of full-time undergraduates at Durham are white, though race is clearly not indicative of religion.
At Oxford University the statistic is similar: 76.9% of undergraduates are white. This is, presumably, a result of wider socio-economic issues which prevent many ethnic minority students from applying to top universities. However, UCL for instance is far more diverse. There, the undergraduate student body is only 59.2% white.
Perhaps as a consequence of the relative lack of ethnic diversity at Durham, some Muslim students told Palatinate that they have come across misconceptions about Islam.
“I think a lot of people here think Muslims don’t know how to have fun, just because we don’t drink mainly.
“There appears to be an assumption that anyone who comes from a minority of some sort is international, which is obviously not the case.”
Another student agreed. “A lot of people think we’re foreign. There’s a divide between us and the international Muslims too, as they don’t get our British sense of humour, or sarcasm.”
Despite the misconceptions, none of the students Palatinate spoke to had ever experienced Islamophobia at Durham. One Muslim student said: “students are open-minded, generally not the type of people who are going to get riled up by articles on the Daily Mail. They always question things. I think older generations are the ones most likely to hold Islamophobic views.”
Another said that, while she had never been treated differently because of her religion, some of her friends had. “I have had friends who started wearing the head scarf at Durham, and told me that they noticed people speaking to them differently, and becoming more reserved.”
Unfortunately, the lack of diversity at Durham threatens to become a vicious cycle, preventing other ethnic minority students from applying. One Durham student said she seriously considered other, more diverse universities which could provide her with a better social environment.
“Durham was actually quite off-putting to me and other Muslims I know. When you’re deciding on a university, you want to know that there is a group that you will fit in to which could also act as support . Because of this, cities like Leeds and Manchester seem much more appealing. It is difficult to express yourself and culture in a place which is not very diverse.”
In a statement, the university told Palatinate “the university works hard to encourage students from all backgrounds to consider coming to Durham.
“We are committed to delivering a range of widening access and outreach activities, such as school visits, Sutton Trust summer schools, and the Supported Progression scheme. Included in this work are targeted interventions with schools and communities with large ethnic minority groups.”
Some Muslim students told Palatinate that they were initially undeterred by Durham’s predominantly white student population.
“A lot of people said to me: ‘you’re going to Durham, it’ll be so different to home’. They tried to persuade me to go somewhere else.”
“I remember when I was applying that I didn’t want anything to deter me from what I wanted to achieve. I didn’t want to not have opportunities because I’m Muslim.”
However, things became difficult once they had arrived. “If I was applying again, I’d rethink coming to Durham. In hindsight maybe I would’ve chosen another university.”
A common theme that arose from talks with the students was the problems of the collegiate system, which tends to split up religious and ethnic minorities. While this makes each college more diverse, it proves to be difficult for the individuals who often find themselves completely isolated from other Muslims.
“I think in some ways that the college system hinders friendships. I felt like it would’ve been nice to have friendships with other Muslims as well as other students.”
Another student agreed. “It actually separates the little people there are of a religious minority, making it more difficult to regularly meet people from a similar background to you.”
One Muslim even considered dropping out as a result of her experiences in college. “I just thought- I can’t do this. It was the isolation I felt, I was completely alone.
“If we were all together it would’ve been a completely different experience. Just to know that there were other people who were feeling the same.”
Mahshid Turner, Durham’s Muslim Chaplain, confirms that the university’s structure can cause problems for some ethnic minority students.“The collegiate way has its positives and negatives. The positive is that, in colleges, students can feel at home. On the other hand, there may be isolation.
“This is why I have set up social activities for all Muslims and Interfaith groups. The programmes set up by the Islamic society have also been extremely helpful to bring Muslims together.”
The university itself does appear to be taking steps towards promoting a more positive environment for both religious and ethnic minority students. In the past five years, the intake of ethnic minority students has increased by 7.8%. Colleges such as St Aidan’s cater for religious dietary requirements, and there are prayer rooms scattered around the campus.
Despite this, the Muslims interviewed unanimously agreed that the university could be doing more.
Chaplain Mashid Turner said: “the spiritual needs of Muslims need to be considered. Some undergraduates are unable to attend Friday prayers due to lectures at that time.”
A student said “we pray five times a day, but there’s nowhere to pray on the science site at all. So we have to rush back home between lectures. We just wish that there was somewhere private to go.”
The students worry that little will be done to improve things, as there are not enough Muslims at the university to mobilise a successful campaign. However, as one student’s personal experience testifies, the small population of Muslim students should not be an excuse for poor facilities.
“At our sixth form college there weren’t many Muslims, but there were all the provisions for us. Coming here, I realised how much more the university could do to help.”
The Muslim students also discussed the drinking culture, which, they say, is a barrier between them and the wider student body. There was nothing I could do in Fresher’s Week.
“When socialising only means going out to get drunk, it takes you a lot longer to click with people who often did after their first night out. First year was very lonely for me because of this.”
Other students described their similar experiences. “Every social activity is centred around drinking. Obviously we can get involved, but at formals, for instance, it feels really odd because we’re the only sober people. So you wonder what’s the point, and end up not going.”
In one case, a Muslim student was told she was not allowed to participate in any of the Fresher’s events, even the ones that did not involve alcohol. This was because she did not want to purchase an expensive wristband sold by her college to get freshers into clubs.
“I asked the Freps, but they said I couldn’t go to anything. That was really hard, and isolating. Coming from a background where people are so understanding, then being here a few days and encountering something like that was shocking.”
Because this particular case happened over a year ago, with a since changed Exec, no one from the college in question can comment on this student’s experience. The current JCR president told Palatinate:
“I can only offer my own experience, but this year our Freshers Reps were extensively trained. Our freshers wristband was not compulsory and never pushed as such. Our daytime events never included alcohol and every evening event which did ran in parallel with a well-attended non drinking event.
“During my time as Senior Man, the Exec and I have made it our priority to involve all members of the college community.”
Until the difficulties facing Muslims at Durham are resolved, many of the students Palatinate interviewed are keen to engage in discussions to challenge perceptions of Islam.
“I would really like to be asked about my religion more. Perhaps students are too shy, or they think we’ll get offended. But no – ask us questions about anything! I’d like to explain. Maybe I should wear a sign on the street, saying ‘please ask me questions!’”
Illustration by Mariam Hayat