Columbia’s Muslim community presented its own narrative at the Muslim Protagonist, a day-long symposium on Saturday.
The event, which was sponsored by the Muslim Students Association, featured several academics, writers, and playwrights. The first Muslim writers’ symposium at Columbia, it featured scholars like Reza Aslan and Columbia’s own Lila Abu-Lughod as well as writers like Wajahat Ali and Ibrahim Abdul-Matin.
The idea for the event came from Mirzya Syed, BC ’13, one of the event’s organizers, who noticed a lack of Muslim characters in her literature classes. In one class that focused on marginalized ethnicities, the only Muslim character in any of the readings was a terrorist, Syed said.
Organizers said the panel was meant to give voice to a Muslim way of thought that is, they said, chronically underrepresented in the media and the arts.
“With Muslims, the narrative is being told from the outside,” Haris Durrani, SEAS ’15 and MSA board member, said. “Everything we’re learning about is western humanities.”
Panelists stressed the importance of the arts and literature in educating people of all communities, placing a special emphasis on balancing personal ethnic stories with common human experiences. Being the Muslim protagonist “means being the most authentic, honest, sincere version of myself and making sure that I’m the one holding the pen writing my story,” Ali said.
In ethnic storytelling, “you’re taking complex ideas and translating them into things that people can understand,” Abdul-Matin said.
The event was met with positive reviews from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Audience members of all ethnicities, religions, and ages attended the event, organizers said, and students even came from other universities like Penn, Cornell, and Princeton. “Our goal is to make it annual, explore different themes, and to reach out to an even larger and more diverse audience,” Maliha Tariq, BC ’13 and MSA vice president, said.
Although the event focused heavily on literature and the arts, it was also a response to negative stereotypes of Muslims propagated by the media. The celebration of Muslim culture comes at a time when some Muslims still view Columbia’s administration and the city government with mistrust, after it was revealed in February 2012 that the New York Police Department was monitoring the MSA’s website, along with the websites of other Muslim student groups in the city. Columbia was the last of the targeted schools to release a statement of recognition, and group leaders were critical of the administration for not being responsive in discussions following the incident.
“It’s completely against what the school stands for: open discussion,” Abdul Rafay Hanif, CC ’14 and MSA president, said on Saturday.
Still, he said, the group’s leaders are satisfied with the administration’s response now. The administration raised money for and approved the appointment of a Muslim religious life adviser, thus providing MSA with administrative representation.
Tariq said the addition of the adviser was a step in the right direction. “We are extremely grateful to have Imam Khalil Abdur-Rashid as a person we can turn to for guidance and support,” Tariq said.
Since the NYPD incident, leaders said, the group has received a large amount of support from other religious institutions and the student body at large. Tariq said the event marked “a positive and more accurate portrayal of who Muslims are as individuals, what we value as a community, and that we are not ‘the other’ but are just as American and human as anyone else.”