Belmont has over 160 student organizations, but a Muslim student organization isn’t one of them — and after multiple rejected attempts to start one, students and faculty have pretty much stopped trying.
For over 10 years now, advocates on campus have been trying to start a religious organization for Muslim students, but were denied by administrators at every turn.
“If a non-Christian student's tuition dollars are good enough, and their grades are good enough, they're on campus. So why can't we have the organization that helps serve their interests? I'm baffled by this,” said Belmont history professor Dr. Daniel Schafer.
The university has implemented the Belmont State of Mind initiative for diversity, equity and inclusion with the goal of welcoming students of different backgrounds.
“Belmont's definition of diversity is as follows: We are all created in the image of God, living as Christ’s body on earth with respect to differences that include, but are not limited to, ethnicity, gender identity, race and sexual orientation,” according to the university website.
However, Muslim students like sophomore Bushra Alammouri say they are being left out of the equation, and point to the lack of religious diversity in the statement as one of the reasons.
“I feel like the diversity statement is more towards bringing in different cultures and ethnicities because the diversity statement doesn't specifically include religion. I feel like if it did include religion, that students who are maybe Jewish or that are Muslim or other things would feel more welcome at Belmont, but currently all students of all faiths don’t feel welcome,” Alammouri said.
Attempts at an Islamic faith organization on Belmont’s campus have been in the works since before Alammouri was a student. In 2011, Schafer was approached by several Muslim students interested in starting a MSA, and he agreed to help.
They were denied the ability to start a Muslim club, but the university granted permission to start a non-religious club revolving around Middle Eastern culture.
After brainstorming in Schafer’s office, they decided on the Rumi Club, named after a 13th-century poet and Islamic scholar. Over the years the club shifted into the South Asian Middle Eastern Association, and is currently the Southwest Asian North African Association, or SWANA; Alammouri serves as its president.
In all its iterations, the student organization hosted events and panels revolving around the culture and various religions of the region, even hosting a Bollywood movie night and festival. Yet the group ran into hurdles because, despite being a secular club, it was perceived by some administrators as an unofficial Muslim student organization, said junior Hope Dennis, president of HOPE Council.
“Certain powers that be felt like it was an undercover Muslim Student Association. And so it really didn't get the resources, the attention or the support that it needed to get, even though it was not,” said Dennis.
As a worship leader for university ministries and the chaplain for the Black Student Association, Dennis supports efforts to start a Muslim student organization.
“It's limiting. It's dehumanizing. It's not fair, just to put it plain and simple, that these students can't have a Muslim student association. I get why Belmont says no, but that doesn't make it right,” Dennis said.
Dennis is referring to the arguments students and faculty on board with a Muslim student organization have encountered, such as Belmont’s “right to discriminate on the basis of religion in order to fulfill its purposes,” as stated in the school’s non-discrimination policy.
Dennis said not being in favor of a Muslim student organization on campus is “un-Christian.”
“I think it's very much a Christian thing to allow someone to be their full selves,” Dennis said.
Dr. Mona Ivey-Soto, a professor of education at Belmont, is an advocate for Muslim students and considers their having the same rights as Christian students integral to promoting Christian values on campus.
“I feel like as a Christian institution and as Christian leaders, our message of love should be allowing students to be their full selves. So we show them who Jesus is by actually allowing them to be who they are,” Ivey-Soto said.
Muslim students also insist that the existence of an Islamic faith organization will benefit non-Muslim students as well, promoting awareness and healthy interfaith relationships.
Dr. Todd Lake, Belmont’s vice president for spiritual development, said he has not heard any complaints about religious diversity on campus.
“All of the evidence that I’ve seen is that all of our students of other faiths and of no faiths feel very welcome here. I have friends across the student body: students who are atheist, agnostic, students who are faithful Christians. They seem to be equally happy here,” said Lake.
“I appreciate the students who come here who are willing to say ‘I'm at Belmont even though I don't share all the commitments of the university,’ and it's up to us to make sure they feel loved,” said Lake. “Being loving and hospitable is key, but that doesn't mean we can’t advance a certain understanding of Christ-centeredness.”
Currently, there is an unofficial MSA that is separate from the secular, cultural groups like SWANA, said Raiyaan Lodhi. Students communicate using group chats, meet up on and off campus and participate in events with Vanderbilt University’s Muslim Student Association and the Islamic Center of Nashville.
All told, the purpose of an Islamic faith organization isn’t to step on the Christian culture of the university, said Lodhi.
“I don’t know why they’re so against it. You can still be a Christ-centered environment but leave a little section for us to do our thing. We’re not gonna infringe, or act against any of the stuff that they do,” said Lodhi, who has been trying to start a Muslim student organization since her freshman year.
A member of the Student Government Association, Lodhi joined the cabinet in part, she said, to help start a Muslim student organization at Belmont. But after many failed attempts, she calls the endeavor a “lost cause.”
“So, it's just gonna stay underground forever,” she said.
CORRECTION: This article was posted twice. We regret this mistake and have updated the story.
This article was written by Gus Sneh.