On Tuesday, Feb. 27, campus facilities installed a misspelled sign in the basement of Thompson Memorial Chapel that read “Muslin Common Room” rather than “Muslim Common Room.” The sign, which was meant to designate the room used by the Muslim Student Union (MSU), has since reignited a dialogue about many of the issues afflicting the Muslim community on campus.
As part of an effort to address student concerns, the Chaplains’ Office requested the sign through the College’s facilities department — a standard procedure. Although all the words had been spelled correctly on the submitted work order, the facilities department incorrectly wrote “Muslin,” upsetting many students on campus. In fact, this is the second time facilities has made such an error in the past five years.
“The error was made by folks in that shop who feel absolutely horrible about the mistake and the hurt that it caused,” Muslim Chaplain Sharif A. Rosen said. “I was personally quite moved by the calls I received from the director of facilities, who offered to apologize in person to the Muslim students. The sign itself was up for less than 24 hours before it was removed, corrected and replaced.”
Shortly after its installment, images of the sign quickly began circulating among students and eventually evolved into a meme critiquing the error.
“I noticed the sign was incorrect when someone forwarded me a picture, and it was funny, especially with the memes people were making — but it quickly turned to anger because it just became emblematic of the ways in which Muslim students on campus have had to fight for the smallest things and get sidelined and accused of being needy,” Minority Coalition (MinCo) co-chair Amina Awad ’18 said.
According to Awad, the sign was particularly important because, earlier in the school year, Muslim students on campus were forced to forego one of the two rooms that they typically used. This restructuring had not only pitted the Muslim community against other religious communities, but also led to feelings of frustration among some Muslim students.
Indeed, the sign was one of many requests that Muslim students had been presenting to the administration and the Chaplain’s Office in the past few years. Previously, some Muslim students had pushed for the maintenance and potential replacement of the couches in the Muslim common room. Upon jokingly running their fingers over the couch, they were horrified to find that they had scraped off a build-up of grime that had accumulated as a result of neglect.
Awad believes that both the sign and couches are reflective of larger issues surrounding Muslim student experiences.
“My sophomore year, Muslim women who led the MSU attempted confronting the sexism and anit-shia rhetoric of the chaplain,” Awad said. “The administration’s solution was to have conversation after conversation, but that did nothing but wear us and gaslight us.”
In response to all this, Awad, along with other students, created a banner entitled “Muslin Common Sheet,” which features a series of anecdotes from Muslim students on campus. The banner is currently hanging on the fireplace in Baxter Hall.
“I was fed up with seeing the ways in which the Muslim women who were a part of the MSU board with me my sophomore year were treated, sidelined and graduated so exhausted and frustrated.” Awad said. “The banner became a way to address the larger context of the Islamophobic campus and how gendered our experiences on campus are. It acknowledges the sexism Muslim women and femmes face from Muslim and non-Muslim men and how the administration hasn’t fully responded to the sexism or Islamophobia or held people accountable.”
This sentiment also resonates with MSU co-chair Omar Kawam ’20.
“The comments and experiences that our Muslim
sisters have to go through manifest the severe underlying Islamophobia that segments of our campus ail from,” Kawam said. “I want to emphasize the importance of working with other minority and religious student groups to combat the mutual injustices we face.”
These notions were also echoed by alums. Bushra Ali ’16 was upset to hear about the incident.
“[The Muslim community] seem[s] to continually hit a brick wall every time we attempt to address the issues that affect us. There just never seem to be enough time, resources and capability to pay heed to and come up with actionable solutions to our problems,” Ali said. “I have always faced issues as a Muslim on this campus, especially since I wore a hijab from day one [until] the beginning of senior year on campus.”
Although he recognizes these concerns, Rosen does not intend to speak on behalf of the Muslim community. Instead, he, along with the Chaplain’s Office, is committed to supporting religious and non-religious students through their experiences at the College.
“At the same time, I am aware of the range of perspectives surrounding this particular situation as well as the other concerns that are getting conflated with this truly unfortunate occurrence,” Rosen said. “My family and I live firsthand our share of difficulties as Muslims in this time and region, and I can empathize with the multi-layered challenges many Muslims at Williams face on campus and as a reflection of the wider national climate.”
“The Chaplains’ Office will continue to try to facilitate opportunities for intra-faith reconciliation and understanding as much as we work on inter-faith learning and service initiatives,” Rosen added. “These are among the most precious goals of our office, and we make ourselves available to all those who share these aspirations.”