Multiculturalism and The Muslim Community at YSU

By I’yonna Taylor-Smith

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio: The Muslim community at Youngstown State University continues to rise every semester, along with the global negative effect of Islamophobia. Students at YSU, who practice Islam, are bridging the gap between Islam-practicing and non-Islamic practicing.

Every semester at YSU, there have been multiple forums for minority students and university community members to discuss the change they want to happen on campus. However, outside of professors and students who organized it, highly ranked faculty members usually do not attend.

At these forums, a multicultural center has been brought up many times by students regarding diversity and inclusion.

When asked about ever getting a multicultural center on campus, YSU President Jim Tressel said, “No one’s ever brought that to my attention.”

Tressel said if there were some examples of other colleges having successful multicultural centers, he would consider it.

However, before Tressel was the president of YSU, he was the Vice President for Strategic
Engagement at The University of Akron in 2013, which had a successful multicultural center.

In April of 2013, students attending The University of Akron had a plan to shut down their Office of Multicultural Development in the fall of 2013 and replace it with a Center for Student Success and Multicultural Center.

Around 75 to 100 students peacefully protested in hopes to stop considering the plan and keep the OMD. Tressel said they would seek more student input. However, they will continue to move forward in what [the Akron staff] believe is the right track.

Noor Khalayleh, a sophomore at YSU studying psychology, said she thinks the multicultural center would help the Muslim community.

“It’ll make us feel more welcomed and understood as a community that is negatively portrayed by the media,” Khalayleh said.

The Muslim Student Association (MSA) at YSU serves as a “community and interfaith service” and offers support to the university’s Muslims and non-Muslims through religious, community events.

According to the U.S. Census in 2016, 57 percent of Youngstown’s population identify as
religious and of those who identify as religious, 32 percent identify as Catholic.

Less than 5 percent of students at YSU are Muslim or practice Islam.

There are only two mosques in Youngstown and three rooms for students to pray on-campus: two in Jones Hall and one in Maag Library.

“Last year YSU made a parlayed room for people to use. My cousins, sisters, and I have used it plenty of times,” Khalayleh said.

Under Islamic beliefs, praying five times a day is a part of the five pillars; a set of guidelines considered mandatory for believers.

Some students have trouble scheduling classes while trying to meet their daily prayer quota, so they either schedule classes around their prayer time or they schedule their prayer time around their classes.

One of those students is Daniah Khalayleh, sister of Noor and a freshmen undergraduate student at YSU, studying Pre-Nursing.

She said she schedules her prayers around her classes and because she registered late, she had no choice but to take this option.

Because of the limited number of faculty members on campus who are Muslim, there is a limited number of adults who students can talk to. Of those, less that 1 percent faculty, one of them is Mustansir Mir.

Mir, the YSU Director of Islamic Studies, is a religious studies professor and a poet. He has written publications like Iqbal’s The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in
Islam and Commentary on Three Qur’anic Passages. Mir has taught at other colleges in Lahore, Pakistan and at U.S. higher education institutions such as University of Michigan.

Mir also provides a safe place students can talk if they feel discouraged about anything.

Daniah said finding other Muslim people on campus to fit in with was not an issue because she met other students during the summer, before the semester started, at the local mosque during Ramadan.

Tiffany Anderson, Director of Africana Studies, thinks making a multicultural center for everyone in the aspect of race, religion, sex and sexuality isn’t the right direction.

“It’s trying to fix a symptom and not the disease,” Anderson said. “From an administrative perspective, it’s not worth the cost when you think about the percentage of the university it would be servicing.”

Anderson said the women’s center will serve for about half or more than half of YSU’s
population, but the campus doesn’t help women in all the ways that are needed.

Anderson said specifically, for Muslims, beyond the administrative perspective of numbers, Islamophobia would be the largest obstacle these students might face. She said this will not be solved by a center and has nothing to do with Muslim students because xenophobic non-Muslim students create the problem.

According to the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), islamophobia-related crimes increased in the United States by 65 percent between 2014 and 2016.

Daniah said she is not so concerned about safety on campus because everyone she has interacted with has been “so kind and friendly.”

She believes a multicultural center would help “create a better understanding of culture” because other cultures can relate and it would be better for campus to interact cordially. She also believes speeches about Islam on campus would help people understand Islam better and said these could also be Islamic programs and events.

William Blake, YSU Director of Student Diversity, agreed to fixing the root issue of YSU not being inclusive before moving on to other issues.

“I think we need to change the way we interact with out Muslim students,” Blake said. “I think we need to have more forums and more ways of exchanging our ideas on how we should act on interacting with individuals with other religions.”

Blake said people are so seeded with their own particular way on how the world operates they’re not welcoming to any other ideas. He said we really need to learn from the other students and become one.