February 22, 2007

Sunni-Shiite Divisions Affect College Campuses

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Tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims have not been limited to Iraq and the greater Middle East, but are spilling over into Muslim communities on college campuses throughout the United States. Muslim students at the University of Michigan and Rutgers University claim that they are deeply divided along Sunni-Shiite lines, leading to bitterness and even threats of violence between the two Muslim communities.

However, according to a Feb. 4 New York Times article, Cornell students have little to worry about. The article, “Iraq’s Shadow Widens Sunni-Shiite Split in the U. S.,” described Cornell and Georgetown as “oases of tolerance” among members of the Muslim community. Muslim students at Cornell said they are inclined to agree.

“Cornell is the epitome of a cohesive Muslim community,” said Ahmed Abdelwahab ’09, social coordinator for the Muslim Educational and Cultural Association (MECA). And Abdelwahab should know, as his brother, Shareif Abdelwahab, a student at Rutgers College, has dealt firsthand with the Sunni-Shiite divisions at Rutgers.

“At Rutgers, the divisions were in your face. If you weren’t Sunni, then you weren’t considered a ‘real’ Muslim, and they didn’t want you as a member of their Muslim Student Association (MSA),” Ahmed said of Shareif’s experiences.

This led Shareif to create an alternative organization on campus called “Salaam,” the Arabic word for peace, which would be open to all Muslims regardless of their affiliation, politics or level of religious observance.

“A lot has changed and improved for the better at Rutgers over the past two years since the creation of the new MSA, Salaam,” Ahmed said.

Many Muslim students at Cornell attribute their community’s cohesiveness to its small size. Though no precise statistics on student religious denominations are recorded, the on-campus Muslim community is estimated to be between 300 and 500 students, with approximately 150 students participating in weekly Friday prayer services.

Another explanation of the strong unity within the Muslim community lies in its unique choice of leadership. Shaan Rizvi ’07, president of MECA, is Shiite, something that would be unusual on other college campuses as the vast majority of Muslims in both the world and the U.S. are Sunni.

“Anytime you have someone from the minority as a leader it chips away at the perceived monopoly of the majority,” said Kareem Shibib ’08, president of Islamic Alliance for Justice (IAJ).

“Our president is Shiite — that says it all,” Ahmed said.

Many of the Muslim students on campus attribute Cornell’s status as an “oasis of tolerance” not only to the strength and uniqueness of its leadership, but also to the way Muslim students are treated and received by the greater campus community. Muslim students point to Cornell’s encouragement of diversity education and the high level of both interest and education of Cornell students.

“Students at Cornell are educated and informed about the world, and they come to Cornell to meet and learn from other people,” Rizvi said.
To raise awareness of Islamic religion, culture, and heritage, MECA will be running Islam Awareness Week, a week of speeches, art displays, movie screenings and discussions to take place on campus every night from April 9 through April 13.

Though the Muslim students feel their community is accepted with open arms, they do feel one thing is missing.

“We need a knowledgeable chaplain that is a valid scholar,” Ahmed said. Many students echoed this sentiment, expressing that the Muslim community is entirely student run, often putting undue stress on students who must focus on their academics.

Prof. Ross Brann, Near Eastern studies, as well as the faculty advisor to IAJ, agrees.

“The MECA [executive board] and IAJ have carried the Muslim community on campus and have done a remarkable job with their educational, cultural and political programming. However, they deserve a chaplain to work with them so that everything does not fall directly upon the students,” he said.

At present, an exploratory committee for the establishment of a Muslim chaplaincy is in the works. As the Muslim community at Cornell continues to grow, “we are at a junction where there is a strong need for such a person on campus,” Rev. Kenneth Clarke said. Clarke is the director of Cornell United Religious Work.

“I wholeheartedly support the effort to establish a Muslim chaplaincy at Cornell, given the growing numbers in the Muslim community, as well as its growing need for a religious authority,” Clarke said.

For now, Muslim students hope that Cornellians continue to take interest in and support their vibrant community.

“With education and information comes greater tolerance, and that’s what we’ve seen for the most part in MECA,” Rizvi said.

Ahmed said Sunni-Shiite relations were good.

“I don’t see any divisions. The future is bright for MECA and the Muslim student community at Cornell,” he said.