At the end of this semester, our campus stands to lose one of its greatest blessings. Ailya Vajid has served as a religious life advisor for Muslim students since January. In this capacity, Ailya has proved absolutely invaluable to Muslims on campus serving as a counselor and mentor. She leads weekly text studies, holds prayer and discussion meetings every Friday. And hers made efforts to build a Muslim community that extends beyond Swarthmore’s campus. She also reaches out to Muslim Students’ Associations at the other Tri-Co schools as well as to schools in Philadelphia in an effort to build a large and interconnected Muslim community. Ailya is exceptionally qualified, having graduated from Harvard Divinity School and worked at a counseling center for Muslim women in DC, and is deeply committed to Swarthmore College (she herself is an alum). According to Muslim student and classmate Asma Noray ‘17, “Having Ailya as a mentor on campus has been instrumental in providing me with the support I need in terms of practicing my faith comfortably in an environment where religion is often marginalized.” Ailya was hired with a President’s Office seed grant for this semester. Unfortunately, this grant has run out and the College does not plan to renew it.
Just last week Ailya, along with Religious and Spiritual Life Advisor the Rev. Joyce Tompkins and Jewish Advisor Rabbi Kelilah Miller, facilitated an interfaith text study called Scriptural Reasoning. Over a collegial dinner in the warm Common Worship Room of Bond Memorial Hall, we discussed selections from holy texts about our relationship with holy texts (very meta) from the Judaic, Muslim and Christian traditions. This meeting truly engaged a group of almost 20 students from those three traditions in interfaith dialogue and helped us all to grow in our personal faiths, as well as to develop a more indepth understanding of the other traditions. Frankly, this event would have been impossible without Ailya. She compiled the Quranic scripture used in the discussion and provided a nuanced, chaplain’s perspective on the texts in question. Additionally, Ailya’s contributions were an essential part of the Interfaith Conference attended by Swatties early this semester. Without Ailya, our delegation would have been more limited in scope and the lessons pulled from that conference would have been more clumsily applied to life at Swarthmore. Including more religious advisors from more diverse traditions gives religious life here a more global scope, it makes our interfaith program more vibrant, and provides more opportunity for dialogue and understanding between people of different faiths.
Currently, none of the campus religious advisors are paid by Swarthmore College despite the enormous value they add to campus life. They provide a fantastic service to students of all faiths and students of no faith at all. While this system is unfair to all of our religious advisors, only one currently faces the loss of her position and her livelihood; only one group of students currently faces a potentially lethal blow to their ministry. Because Christianity (and to a lesser extent Judaism) are privileged religions in the United States, Christians and Jews on campus can tap into large networks (InterVarsity, Partners in Ministry, Hillel International) to secure funding for their advisors and ministries. Muslims aren’t as lucky. Islam is a much subordinated faith in the West and Muslims face serious discrimination in the United States and abroad. It is much more challenging for an Islamic student group to acquire funding for a ministry than it is for a Christian group.
Losing Ailya would significantly impact the quality of life of several Swarthmore students. Another Swarthmore Islamic Society member, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that “During the first semester, I often felt lonely. I was experiencing a lot of difficulty transitioning to Swarthmore last semester; however, being able to talk to Ailya and having her as a resource helped me deal with a lot of problems I was facing. Ailya’s presence has had an enormous effect on my life and happiness and losing her would negatively impact my ability to stay strong and connected with my faith.” Intercultural Center Intern and Swarthmore Islamic Society member Salman Safir ‘16 shared that “Ailya’s presence has given Muslim students someone to look up. This is especially important given the troublesome time for Muslims in post 9/11 America. Further, she has presented a strong voice for Islamic issues that are relevant to the entire campus. For the first time in my life I have had someone to go to discuss issues related to religious struggles, someone who understands what it is like to be Muslim in college. With Ailya here, I have been able to further my faith in a way that had previously not been possible.”
For an institution that prides itself on embracing diversity and promoting the sincere exploration of personal identities, it’s amazing that the college refuses to truly support the development of religious identity, especially in the case of Islam, with its historic lack of support. Swarthmore’s attitude toward a personal, rather than academic, exploration of faith seems at best distant and cold; at worst openly hostile. In this situation, the refusal of the college to support Muslim students demonstrates not only the danger of Swarthmore’s hegemonic secularism but also the hypocrisy in its “commitment to inclusion.” Outside of Swarthmore, religion is a big deal; the refusal to acknowledge the importance of religious identity and support diversity in the religious sphere directly contradicts our ideal of global citizenship. For the sake of interfaith dialogue and for the support of Muslim students it is critical that Ailya’s position be funded until a permanent solution can be found. If you are willing to support the effort to keep Ailya on campus, and in so doing stand up for free religious expression and the inclusion of religious identities in the palette of intersectional discourse, please contact Campus Religious and Spiritual Life Advisor the Rev. Joyce Tompkins.