Following the recent Charlie Hebdo attack, many commentators, whilst condemning the brutal violence, also pointed to Muslims as being increasingly ‘powerless’ and ‘demonised’. Perhaps part of the solution to this problem is to encourage as many Muslims as possible to play a full and productive role in society. A prerequisite to that is radically improving and widening access into our most elite institutions, including Oxbridge.
Being the Vice-President of the Cambridge Islamic Society (Isoc), I am incredibly privileged to be involved in access schemes which seek to empower Muslim students to view Oxbridge as an attainable goal. It is also simultaneously demoralising to see first-hand the fears and worries, whether real or imagined, that prevent so many prospective Muslim students from applying here. Ranging from Cambridge socialising, access to halal meat to the availability of praying facilities, it is clear that for some Muslims capable of applying and getting offers from Oxbridge, their faith simply seems fundamentally incompatible with the university experience, despite all that Oxbridge offers.
It is important that these fears, often steeped in misconceptions, be allayed by actively promoting access and ensuring that Oxbridge, in particular, is a welcoming environment for all students of all faiths and none.
Alcohol for many Muslims, especially during Freshers’ Week, is often a barrier to many social activities they would otherwise engage in. It is not only Muslims, or even religious people, who prefer not to attend such activities: recent Freshers’ Week non-drinking socials organised by many colleges such as Fitz and Downing have proven popular thus far.
The fear of not having access to halal food in Cambridge is a reoccurring question sent to ISOC by worried students in sixth form wondering whether or not to apply here. A growing number of colleges (over 15 currently) now offer halal which is certainly a step in the right direction, but as ever, more could be done in order to ease the worries of Muslim potential students. It seems right that colleges should seek to accommodate the requests of religious groups if they are reasonable, as it could fundamentally impact perceptions and ultimately access.
Muslims are required to pray five times a day and this can be incredibly hectic to do in between lectures, supervisions and practicals. This is made even more difficult when not near your room or the Prayer Room (on the Sigwick Site). Some Muslim students I have spoken to have helped ensure that departments and colleges have a designated room for reflection open for all: Emmanuel recently opened a reflections room which is used by a diverse number of students. It is small steps such as this that breakdown misconceptions of Oxbridge as solely catering for one privileged group of society.
The Islamic Society has an Access Day twice a year to encourage applications from Muslim students, as well as a buddy system and alternative prospectus that is tailor-made to answer Muslim-specific questions, popular among the Islamic community. I stress to those young Muslims concerned about the social aspect of clubbing that there are many societies and activities that do not fit the university society ‘stereotype’. Muslims should feel empowered that this is probably more so the case at Oxbridge than anywhere else – students can be involved in journalism, the Union and numerous sport societies to name but a few.
My role, and indeed the role of ISOC and Oxbridge in general, is to convince gifted but unsure students that one can certainly maintain their faith and practices at Oxbridge.