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Religious Freedom at a Jesuit University: A Muslim Student’s Perspective

Aamir Hussain, May 13, 2014

When I was looking at colleges during my senior year in high school, I found myself especially attracted to Georgetown because the university celebrated religion and its Catholic-Jesuit identity as a central facet of campus life. This was in stark contrast to secular and public universities that had religious life as a fringe activity. As I learned more about Georgetown, I was intrigued that the university provided chaplaincy support to five faith traditions, and was the first college in the nation to hire a full-time imam. In fact, Imam Yahya Hendi was hired in 1999, before the 9/11 attacks and well before Islam came to the forefront of religious freedom discussions in the United States; thus, as a devout Muslim, I was happy to attend a university that was “ahead of the curve” when it came to discussions about religion.
During most of my time at Georgetown, I understood religious freedom as having access to designated spaces, events, and organizations with which I could practice my religion. Georgetown exceeded all of my expectations in both the academic and extra-curricular spheres. In terms of academics, the Muslim Chaplaincy in Campus Ministry, the Berkley Center, the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, and the Theology Department routinely invited speakers well-versed in topics of Islam and the modern world.

In the extra-curricular sphere, I had ample opportunities to take leadership roles and get to know other Muslim students through the Muslim Students Association, the Muslim Interest Living and Learning Community (MILC), and congregational prayers in the basement of Copley Hall. Even though I attended a Catholic university, I never felt that I needed to sideline my religious identity in order to fit in; rather, exploring Georgetown’s Jesuit heritage motivated me to more deeply understand my own faith tradition. Indeed, these experiences also sparked my interest in promoting interfaith dialogue and cooperation on a broader scale through organizations like the Interfaith Youth Core.

As I prepare to leave Georgetown, I do have a few suggestions for how the university could expand its commitment to religious freedom. Over the past few years, I have noticed an emphasis on interfaith dialogue between the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) that unconsciously excludes other traditions. I understand why this occurs; the Abrahamic traditions are so similar that dialogue is often very easy. However, for many Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and people of other backgrounds, this seemingly unequal treatment feels like a lack of religious freedom. The university should hold more academic events that incorporate speakers from outside the Abrahamic faiths, and consider hiring spiritual advisors for the increasing number of “spiritual, but not religious” students among the Millennial Generation.

Despite these minor quibbles, I am extremely grateful to the university for my experience and their support for interfaith work. Through this Jesuit education, I have come to better understand one of my favorite verses from the Quran: “To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way. If God had so willed, He would have made you a single people [united in religion], but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues (5:48).”
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Cornerstone is the blog of the Religious Freedom Project (RFP) at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. The Cornerstone blog is the only online platform devoted exclusively to scholarly debate about the meaning and reach of religious liberty. Read more.