By: Mary Kenah (Loyola Senior)
Of the 11,703 undergraduate students at Loyola University Chicago, only around 700 of them are Muslim. Despite representing a religious minority, the Muslim community at Loyola is very much alive and involved on campus.
At the center of Muslim life at Loyola is the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), which serves as a vibrant social and spiritual hub for Muslims and the entire campus community.
The MSA’s president, senior Sofia Khatoon (21), has embraced the responsibility of maintaining and growing this faith community for the 2023-2024 academic year. Having grown up in a variety of educational settings and contexts–up to second grade in India, middle school in Chicago, high school in conservative Illinois, and part of college online–she is uniquely and keenly aware of the multifaceted challenges that Muslim students face globally.
Khatoon, the co-founder of her high school’s MSA and a 3-year member of Loyola’s MSA Shura (executive board), understands well the various roles that an MSA can play on school campuses and in the lives of Muslim students.
I sat down with Khatoon to discuss her on-campus experiences in the Loyola MSA after one year of an exclusively online school year, how she thinks the MSA functions within the predominantly non-Muslim campus of Loyola, and her plans for this year of presidency in the MSA.
*Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RogersEdge Reporter: So, what was it like transitioning into the more in-person experience in MSA [at Loyola]?
Khatoon: It was definitely–it was different. Everyone kind of just started smiling at each other after the first few MSA events. You saw another person that looked even vaguely Muslim or someone who you saw at an MSA event and you’d be like, “Oh hey, what’s up?” I slowly started feeling like I belonged. I was very apprehensive because I felt like there were all of these things that were making me stand out. But that wasn’t the case at all. And so the transition was me being apprehensive, but then all of that just being thrown out the window because everyone was super nice.
RER: Can you think of anything in particular that you think you might have needed when you were just starting out in college that you try to incorporate in your leadership style?
Khatoon: Something that I try very much to incorporate in my leadership style is being non-judgmental. I think that’s a large part of why I wasn’t ever keen to being involved in the Muslim community growing up. It was like all of these spaces and experiences in which I constantly felt like I was being judged for not knowing enough about my faith or not being a good enough Muslim. So now I kind of make it my mission that if anyone ever has a question for me, I always answer with a smile and I try to not skip a single beat while doing it. The biggest thing that I try to do is just be non-judgmental in every single interaction I have with anything even remotely pertaining to faith or faith based spaces.
RER: There are students then, like you said, that kind of have that aversion to certain communities. And there’s some people that aren’t involved in this MSA community. How do you try to get the MSA to be helpful for the students who aren’t connected to it or who aren’t involved in it?
Khatoon: A very large part of that is honestly just conversation and talking with a smile. Every single time I talk to someone that’s kind of apprehensive about this space, without failure they’ve always been like, “What type of MSA is this? Like, is this like the toxic type of MSA?” And I’m so glad when I hear that question because then I can explain and be like, “No,” and talk about my experience. I feel like just me talking about my own experience, having been through those spaces and then being here now, really helps people.
RER: How about non-Muslims, what kind of tone do you try to set for non Muslims through the MSA?
Khatoon: Two of my closest friends at Loyola are non-Muslim. Throughout high school itself, just because I’ve basically had to convince people that we’re not a threat, I’ve kind of gained experience with making spaces for people that are not a part of our faith or our communities to come and experience them and learn more about them so that they too can realize that like, we’re just a bunch of dorks that like the same thing. And the more that people come to these events, the more they see that. Every single time someone asks me “Oh, like, my friend’s not Muslim. Like, is it gonna be weird if they come with me?” I always make sure to be like “No, MSA is open to everyone.” Historically, if you look at some of the best Muslim communities, even just anthropologically, we’ve always been very keen on making sure that everyone feels safe and respected in all of our spaces, contrary to what people seem to think that we are. So, I really try to make a personal effort to extend that olive branch and make it known that we are like that.
RER: Do you have anything specific in mind, like any type of environment, experience or opportunity that you hope to create for the Loyola community through MSA this year?
Khatoon: I know that before COVID, Fast-a-Thon used to be a really big thing. And we haven’t been able to do it the past three years that I’ve been at Loyola. I’m trying to take a proactive measure because I noticed that a lot of people that were not Muslim or that were Muslim would come just to Iftars (fast-breaking meal observed during Ramadan) even if they wouldn’t come to MSA. I’ve already begun planning on how we can make [Ramadan] more approachable and friendly, how we can involve everyone–regardless if they are part of MSA or not, regardless if they identify as Muslim or not. I really want to work on Fast-a-Thon because then we’re specifically highlighting or asking interfaith communities to join us and participate with us in this tradition because I feel like Ramadan really brings out the best in us and our community.
To see more of the MSA, check out their Instagram! @loyolamsa