The Freshman 15: Zaytuna College

The inaugural class of America’s first Islamic college has high aspirations. But can it help end Islamophobia?

Zaytuna College, the first four-year Islamic college in the United States, opened its doors in a small corner of Berkeley, Calif., with prayer, speeches and the incessant buzz of the press corps. It was late August, just months after the so-called Ground Zero Mosque controversy lit up television screens and headlined newspapers across the country. The media’s eyes were fixed on America’s newest Islamic institution. What they found was the college’s inaugural class of 15: six men and nine women who hope to receive bachelor’s degrees in Islamic law and theology or Arabic language. Some were raised in the religion, others converted. Like two of the college’s co-founders, Imam Zaid Shakir and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, all are American.

The stories that reporters and commentators filed painted very different pictures of the college. Many, said Hatem Bazian, chairman of Zaytuna’s academic affairs committee and a co-founder of the college, portrayed the school as either an antidote to Islamic extremism, or a part of it – the indoctrinating arm of a stealth jihad, a covert plan to bring Shari’a law to America.

“There’s this dichotomy, that either you’re a good Muslim or a bad Muslim,” said Bazian. A good Muslim, he explained, agrees with U.S. foreign policy, or at the very least, doesn’t criticize it. A Muslim who questions her country’s actions is deemed the enemy. “We want to make an American Muslim identity that is diverse, critical and has the ability to not only contribute, but critique society so that the community isn’t pigeonholed into either you are this or that; either you’re with us or against us.” When oversimplifications persist, he said, so does the perception of Islam as a “homogenous other” – foreign and dangerous. It’s in this atmosphere that Islamophobia flourishes.

Zaytuna’s co-founders have thrust themselves into the public eye since the college’s convocation hoping, perhaps, to remain true to the school’s motto – “Where Islam meets America” – and help give America a proper introduction to their religion: one that moves beyond narrow definitions. Appearing on CNN, Yusuf dismissed critics of the college, saying, “Islam is an acceptable target. To be prejudicial toward Islam is really politically correct still.” But, he went on, attitudes are changing, “Americans are waking up.”

And Zaytuna College is a crucial part of that shift, says the school’s leadership. The existence of an accredited Muslim academic institution in the U.S. will help acculturate Islam in this country, they say, as Georgetown and Norte Dame did with Catholicism, and Brandeis did with Judaism. (Zaytuna is at the beginning stages of the arduous college accreditation process.)

Anyone who doubts that Zaytuna’s leaders are serious about reaching – and teaching – a broader American public about Islam need only check the school’s Facebook page, which has more than 5,000 fans. It’s a constantly growing constellation of video lectures about where Americans and Islam intersect; photo collections from panels and roundtable discussions on Islamophobia; even a recently added black-and-white video profile of a Zaytuna College student who hails from the Motor City titled “Detroit Steel.”

When I visited Zaytuna on a Thursday afternoon in October, a month and a half into the semester, the media frenzy had calmed (although unpacked boxes filled with books still littered the school’s newly converted prayer room). Four students were gathered in a freshly painted, sparsely furnished classroom studying for a midterm. It could have been any campus in America: they flipped through their notebooks furiously in the final hour before the exam, their eyebrows knotted in concentration as one student read from her notes and another transcribed the words to a whiteboard. But the students, like the faculty who teach and advise them, know their tiny college is in the spotlight. They too feel the weight of what they’re doing.

“It is a responsibility, but it’s a good kind of responsibility,” said Christopher Cusano, a 28-year-old Zaytuna student who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science. The knowledge he gains in the next four years at Zaytuna “is something I’d like to bring back to the community,” he said. “Not only the Muslim community, but the society at large, so they understand Islam and they can have a choice about whether they want to interact with Muslims positively or not.”

Alissa Figueroa is an independent journalist and a student at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She reports primarily on immigration and economics.

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