Muslim University Students in Australia and the United States

Dr Christine Asmar

The Power of Research: Findings from surveys of Muslim university students in Australia and the United States

(My presentation in Workshop 1 at the Conference was an interactive one, so this paper represents a more formal version of what I discussed in that workshop. Readers may also refer to the list of publications at the end of the paper.)

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we met for our conference, the Burramattagal people of the Dharug group.


The 2007 conference marked an important milestone in our journey towards understanding the issues affecting Muslim students in Australia. I felt honoured, excited and heartened to be invited to take part in the event, and to hear from and about our future Muslim leaders in Australia.

Before dealing with the subject of this paper, I would like to introduce myself by saying that I am not myself a Muslim, although I lived in the Middle East for 11 years. My doctoral research was on Palestinian politics. Since then I have worked as an academic developer (in professional development for university teaching staff) at the University of Sydney. As a senior lecturer in the Institute for Teaching and Learning, my field of research interest is higher education - and within that, issues of cultural difference as they relate to both staff and students in western universities.


What I want to do in this paper is to move away from the ideas of deficits or victimhood often associated with Muslims, and instead focus on some of the more positive ways in which the key issues can be approached. Specifically I want to model, and suggest, how the power of research can be harnessed for our purposes. I would argue that there are few more powerful tools than findings from rigorously conducted research, when it comes to combating the discrimination which was one of the main topics at the conference.

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Finding out prior knowledge

My original session title referred to 'Three things we thought we knew' to signal that I wanted to involve my audience actively in the workshop. Readers who are teaching - or working in fields like staff development, or raising cultural awareness - will know how useful it is to find out, and build upon, people's prior knowledge and prior assumptions at the outset. By establishing where people are positioned, in terms of their pre-existing knowledge and attitudes, we can then try to add to that knowledge, and possibly (though this is much harder) shift some of those attitudes.

In the workshop I attempted to model this interactive approach by asking the audience to initially consider 3 questions, namely:

  1. Would you expect female Muslim students in Australia to experience university differently from male Muslim students? (Why?)
  2. Do you think local/domestic Muslim students would be more satisfied with their experience at university than international Muslim students? (Why?)
  3. Would you expect Muslim students at US universities to report that their overall experiences at university had got worse, or better, after 9/11? (Why?)

People then gave various responses to the questions, providing an interesting range of personal anecdote and considered reflection. As usual I found that getting people involved in this activity achieved not only an 'ice-breaker' effect, warming up the group in the first session of the day; more importantly, it also told me something about them. When using this technique with students or clients, an important next step is - ideally - to find out why people answered the way they do. In my experience, that is when people's preconceptions tend to really be expressed. 

In the conference session I then introduced people to some of the actual findings from my research, leaving them to decide if their prior opinions matched up with the 'facts' as presented to them. The first two questions related to findings from research in Australia, while the third was connected to work I did in the United States.

In the following section I will refer to my qualitative and quantitative research only in general terms. Details of my methods, sampling, statistical analysis and so on are dealt with in detail in my published articles, several of which are listed in the references at the end of this paper.

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The Australian surveys

Gender issues

The first question under consideration related to how male and female Muslim students experience university life in Australia. In my survey of 175 students across several Australian universities I asked questions covering a range of issues, including some that referred specifically to issues that might be expected to affect women differently to men. One question, for example, related to whether women wearing a hijab might feel unwelcome on campus (although I was careful not to signal that a discriminatory experience was expected). The analysis of my findings prompted me to acknowledge - in common with some participants at the conference - that I had anticipated the men would see things quite differently to the women. The findings, it turned out, did not support my own expectations.

When it came to gender issues, the one finding that really stood out was that there were no significant differences between the men and the women when it came to the majority of topics raised, including:

  • Levels of satisfaction with their courses and with their institutions;
  • Levels of satisfaction with the support and services for Muslims within their institutions;
  • Feeling part of a university community (in other words, their sense of belonging);
  • Perceiving negative attitudes towards Muslims on and off campus - including whether women in hijab felt unwelcome.

It should be noted here in passing that, for both men and women, a majority expressed high overall levels of satisfaction with their courses, in the same proportions as in national surveys of all students across Australia.

One of the very few issues where women responded in ways significantly different from the men was in feeling less comfortable in interactions with non-Muslim students. But this could well be seen as an intersectionality issue - in other words, more to do with race than gender. In Canada the term 'visible minority' is sometimes used, and it can be argued that Muslim women who cover (the majority of those whom I surveyed) - fall readily into such a category. In other words, the women in hijab were visibly Muslim in ways that the men were generally not - and may have been treated accordingly. A male student in my study observed:

Muslim sisters are more identifiable as Muslims because there are more sisters in hijab than there are brothers with beards.

Moreover, for nearly all students, off-campus experiences were much more negative than those within the university. Thus, the harassment regularly experienced by women in hijab, in the streets and shopping malls, may lead some of them to feel a certain wariness in other contexts involving interactions with large numbers of non-Muslims.

Despite this single difference, my overall findings strongly suggest that female and male Muslim students are likely to see and experience the world in very similar ways. This in turn supports the view that expectations of any kind of oppositional relationship between them, have little basis - at least within the university context. I asked people at the conference to consider the possibility that stereotypical views of Muslim men as potential oppressors of women, might influence some of our expectations as to how males and females might respond to survey questions. I noted in turn that the actual research findings provide a robust refutation of such expectations.

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International student issues

The second question I raised at the conference also related to Muslim students in Australia - this time to the possible differences between local (domestic) and international students. Here we need to bear in mind that international students are often seen as likely to have problems (and - by implication - as potentially causing problems). At my own university, for example, Saudi students currently have a mentor appointed to 'assist students to adjust to new life in Australia, including counselling and culture shock'. This kind of thinking (which was gratifyingly absent from this particular conference) can lead us back into deficit territory. On the basis of stereotypical thinking, and on the basis of some other sources of data about student success rates, students from overseas could well be expected to report experiencing more challenges, and to express correspondingly less satisfaction, than local students. Once again, this was one of my own starting assumptions. Once again, however, the research findings in relation to Muslims in my study disrupted such notions.

First of all, while both groups of Muslims (local and international) expressed quite high levels of satisfaction with the academic dimensions of their courses and their institutions, the international students were likely to be even more positive. Similarly, in relation to some broader issues, the international students I surveyed were significantly less critical than the local students were. For example, the locals were much more likely to perceive and report instances of discrimination against Muslims both on and off campus. This appeared even more marked in the case of some recent local converts - or reverts - whose whole life experience on and off campus changed when, for example, the women among them started to cover. One woman, who had only converted a year previously, commented:

I can feel the difference I receive in all aspects of the university, and in outside areas. We are not treated equally, and I sometimes feel we are despised.

The Australian Muslims were also much more likely to be critical of their institutions' provision of support and services for students. Such services included the provision of prayer and ablution facilities - both extremely important issues for the practising Muslims who formed the great majority of my participants. It must be acknowledged that in the period since I carried out my study, many institutions have established or upgraded their Islamic prayer facilities, but it remains a sensitive issue. I would go further and suggest that it constitutes the barometer by which many Muslims judge their institution's religio-cultural responsiveness.

So, what can we conclude from this? The first and most obvious conclusion is that the international students in my study reported comparatively high levels of satisfaction and academic commitment, laying to rest some possible negative expectations associated with them as a group. The second conclusion is one which I have proposed elsewhere; namely, that research findings such as these challenge some widespread assumptions about the need to service international students' needs at the possible expense of meeting local students' own aspirations and requirements. Muslim students, who now constitute a growing proportion of our local students, are a clear case in point. Others at this conference and in the media have noted their growing confidence in articulating and asserting their needs. As one Australian-born Muslim in my study remarked: 

I think it makes a difference if you're a student who's actually based here with your family, and grew up in the country, because it's not as alienating and you know how to work the system.

The research therefore suggests that, firstly, broad generalisations about international students, often seen as an undifferentiated group associated with a whole range of deficits, need to be constantly interrogated in terms of their validity. The findings also provide a kind of academic weaponry for those making the case that universities need to pay much more attention to the spiritual as well as academic and social needs of their home-grown and culturally diverse student body.

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The United States surveys

I come now to the final question we considered at the conference, namely whether the events of September 2001 (9/11) in the United States necessarily led to adverse outcomes for Muslim students. Here I will draw on findings from my surveys of Muslim students at a number of US universities in the Mid West, carried out in 1999 and again in 2003 (i.e. after 9/11). A simple comparison of the nature and intensity of the views expressed by the two cohorts showed up some interesting differences.

In addition, although they were not the same individuals in both surveys, the 2003 cohort often expressed unsolicited but strong views on how things had been before 9/11 and how things had changed after that. My initial assumption, occasioned mainly by the publicity given to the increased harassment and surveillance of Muslims in the North American context, was that a narrative of unhappiness and persecution might well emerge. Colleagues at the conference appeared to share some similar expectations on this issue.

Continuing issues for US Muslims

Few researchers would cast doubt on the continuing salience of discrimination as an issue affecting Muslims in the western world today. For university students in both Australia and the United States, harassment and other negative experiences are much more likely to be encountered off-campus than within the relatively safe environment of their institutions. In the US context, international students in my study reported feeling particularly vulnerable. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, not all the reported responses to a discriminatory environment were negative.

Interestingly, the comparison with external hostilities appears to lead many Muslim students to appreciate the cultural diversity, supportive environment and liberal attitudes surrounding them on campus. More specifically, respondents in both 1999 and 2003 reported satisfaction with what I have termed 'institutional responsiveness'. This denotes the ways in which institutions responded to Muslim students on two levels: first, in terms of meeting their ongoing spiritual needs - say, by the provision of prayer spaces; and secondly, in terms of actions taken to lessen the damage done by immediate crises, of which 9/11 was the starkest. Such actions included statements of public support for and protection of the Muslim student community, such as university-wide messages to all staff and students issued by the office of the Provost or President.

On quite another level, respondents in 1999, and again in 2003, complained about the continuing lack of an Islamic curriculum on their campuses. By this they meant the provision of courses in Islamic Studies and in Arabic, but also the 'Islamicising' of mainstream courses such as Comparative Religion or even International Business. This lack was seen by some students as non-inclusive, because it limited the academic choices available to them, as one student noted:

Not having a course in Islamic Studies here was a big drawback for me in coming here. 

These, then, were just some of the ongoing issues reported by US respondents over the whole period in which I conducted my surveys. Not much of it was unanticipated, other than perhaps the depth of appreciation for the responses some institutions were willing to take on behalf of Muslim students. Much more striking were the new issues that had emerged by the post-9/11 period.

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New issues for US Muslims post-9/11

The first phenomenon reported by interviewees was what I term a 'new Muslim activism'. The 1999 students had seemed quietly confident about their future in higher education and later, within US society (most were local students). They had not, however, seemed particularly engaged with fellow students or with campus culture.

In response to the shock of 9/11 such certainties vanished overnight, but this in turn impelled students to adopt new roles and activities. The 2003 cohort of Muslims reported being involved in:

  • organising interfaith forums and collaborations
  • speaking to student and community groups
  • proactively learning more about their religion
  • disseminating their new knowledge
  • bonding more closely with other Muslims.

One student summarised it this way:

We can't ignore what's happening. Muslims feel the need to explain their religion to others now.

Thus, out of a climate of fear and anxiety grew new strengths. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the case of the women. As expected, those wearing the hijab reported being subject to increased harassment after 9/11. However in unexpected ways the hijab also became a kind of symbol of empowerment, and women began to adopt unforeseen new roles as ambassadors for their religion. Said one:

Some people ask us about our religion. This has happened more since 9/11…Women tend to encounter more of these situations than men.

The emerging new profile for the women was noted by male students too:

They are called on more often, they get asked more questions… In many ways they are the spokespeople for Islam.

It is at times like this that research becomes really exciting. Here, in a climate of negativity and dread, were powerful voices emerging which articulated new strengths and new hopes for the future. Overall, what really surprised me was how positive the post-9/11 students were, on a whole range of levels.

Edina Lekovic, the communications director for the Los Angeles and Washington-based Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), provides a summary of the new spirit of optimism characterising Muslim communities across the USA now:

'If September 11 hadn't happened, we wouldn't have this much influence today.' (Spiegel Online International website (opens in a new window) , Accessed 21 September 2007)

Comparison with other studies

Michael Appleton's (2005) study of Muslim student attitudes in the UK, in the period after 9/11, came up with some results which were strikingly similar to those in my own work in the United States. His Muslim student respondents reported that they:

  • Appreciated feeling safe in their university environment, especially when compared to the off-campus climate;
  • Experienced an increase in their own interest in Islam, and a corresponding desire to increase their knowledge of Islam as a religion;
  • Felt closer to other Muslims after the event than they had before; and
  • Noticed more public interest in Islam - which they saw as beneficial.

This set of parallel findings reminds us that being able to validate one lot of research findings by reference to other people's research - especially if it is work done by international scholars - can be a really useful tool. Comparative data can greatly strengthen the validity of one's own claims.

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We all have our own biases and assumptions, some shaped by the media, some more entrenched. As a researcher, I started out with my own assumptions - but realised later that my data was sometimes telling me something quite different. So what have we learnt?

Firstly, many of us might have thought the male and female Muslims might see the world quite differently - but in my study they didn't. Do we need to examine whether we have some kind of expectation of a gender divide or conflict?

Secondly, there is a tendency in universities to associate certain 'problems' with diverse student groups, including international students. Not only did my findings suggest that the Muslim international students are doing well; the research also supports a realisation that universities need to pay a lot more attention to the spiritual needs of our own students educated in Australia.

Thirdly, we can easily slip into a doom and gloom scenario in the post 9/11 era, a time when all the news affecting Muslims seems bad. But the American Muslim students I interviewed are full of energy and optimism. This assessment has been borne out by many informal conversations here in Australia, and by other international research. From this we can all take heart.

A word of caution: we all need to be honest in admitting our own mistaken assumptions, and I have tried to do exactly this throughout this paper. All data is subject to interpretation and there can be temptations to shape such interpretations to suit our declared hypotheses. In an era when our society is awash with misinformation and subterranean agendas, we need to be vigilant in ensuring the rigour of any research we conduct, or that we refer to.

After analysing and writing up my findings, like most academics, I publish most of them in scholarly books or international refereed journals. While this is a process that does (or should) ensure the quality of the research, we know that probably only a few people ever read such journals. However, I have also drawn on my research in lots of workshops and seminars in Australia, the UK and the USA. In such contexts it is a powerful tool to prompt people to reflect - and people have told me that it has led them to reconsider their views.

My work was done a few years ago. Times change, people change, and further research is always needed. I look to the younger scholars of the community, in particular, to carry on this work. Research can be a powerful weapon in dealing with the challenges facing Muslims today - and it can also form an exciting new frontier of knowledge.

Selected publications on Muslim student issues:

Appleton, M. (2005) The political Attitudes of Muslims Studying at British Universities in the Post 9/11 World (part I). Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 25, 2, 171-191.

Appleton, M. (2005) The political Attitudes of Muslims Studying at British Universities in the Post 9/11 World (part II). Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 25, 3, 299-316

Asmar, C. (2005) Politicising student difference: The Muslim experience. International Perspectives on Higher Education Research, Volume 3: International Relations. Edited by Malcolm Tight. Oxford, UK: Elsevier Ltd, 129-157.

Asmar, C. (2005) Internationalising Students: Reassessing diasporic and local student difference. Studies in Higher Education, 30, 3, 291-309.

Asmar, C., Proude, E. and Inge, L. (2004) 'Unwelcome sisters'? An analysis of findings from a study of how Muslim women (and Muslim men) experience university. Australian Journal of Education 48,1 (April), 47-63.

Asmar, C. (2001) A Community on Campus: Muslim students in Australian universities. Muslim Communities in Australia. Edited by Abdullah Saeed and Shahram Akbarzadeh. Kensington, NSW: University of NSW Press, 139-160.

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