So what does it mean to be a Muslim in academia? A case of oppressive institutions and Islamophobic landscapes.

So what does it mean to be a Muslim in academia?  A case of oppressive institutions and Islamophobic landscapes.
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Maisha Islam talks about her in this blog the latest publication of “Sociology Compass”. where she and her co-author Arif Mahmud take readers on a journey to better understand the experiences of Muslim academics navigating the UK academic landscape.

There is a lot to learn and get used to in academia as an early career researcher. From the competitive world of publishing, to securing funding or research grants, teaching many courses at once and supporting students sometimes day and night. Even so, there’s usually no metaphorical map to guide you—add that to the lack of support mechanisms, and you’ve got the perfect storm for researchers and professionals trying to navigate such terrain. Furthermore, we see evidence that academia is often tied to colonial ways of working. This includes, but is not limited to, its role in justifying scientific racism 18th until 19th century Europe and the legacies of perpetuating and reconstructing knowledge systems that have systematically undermined the contribution of historically marginalized communities (Aiyad, 2021). The authors of this a recent article, as two early-career researchers who occupied historically “other” positions and bodies found paradoxical comfort in knowing that the implicit and overt Islamophobic experiences we personally encountered in the academy (which also harm our gender and race) were not felt in isolation; that we could find connection in these experiences of exclusion. But the main problem we realized was that it was too small really and seemed aware of the challenges faced by Muslim academics in UK higher education (HE), particularly those at the start of their careers.

Muslim Academics – Lack of Action or Apathetic Attitude?

As Ramadan (2017; 2021) has pointed out, the experiences of Muslim academics and our relationship to our academic identity are woefully neglected, especially when mainstream notions of academic identity fail to capture the meanings that Muslim staff would attach to their roles in academia. Although we see a growing body of literature examining the experiences of racial minority academics (Arday, 2020; Bhopal etc.2016), the limited data and research focusing on this from the perspective of religion, particularly Islam, is surprising, though not surprising.

Religion as a marker of diversity remains relatively understudied in both sociology and education (Aune & Stevenson, 2017; Park & ​​Bowman, 2015). So whether Muslim academics are absent from the numbers that make up the staff profiles or, like me and Arif, are viewed with apathy is neither here nor there – the bottom line is that as a sector, we are not being heard. these incredibly diminished and marginalized voices. The available data on the profile of Muslim staff in UK HE can also be considered incomplete (Advance HE, 2021), given that institutions have the option of returning data relating to the religion and faith of staff to the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency.

With little meaningful quantitative and qualitative insight into the experiences of Muslim students and staff, we wanted to benchmark and represent similar peers in other HEs in the UK.

Our autoethnographic contribution

Our frustration brought us to each other, so we had a virtual call to explore our academic identities and feelings of belonging in the academy. The conversation was raw; We spoke at length about our relative experiences of symbolic violence, racism, Islamophobia, and our hopes for the future of academia. The important thing is that the conversation was safe, a feeling that is often unusual for us. As detailed in our article, this is due to a sense of vulnerability, a sense of belonging to the spaces we occupy. There is also skepticism about whether our stories will be considered valid within these hegemonic structures. Furthermore, our autoethnographic approach required us to be vulnerable as we revealed some of our inner feelings; the rising fear that our experience will be misunderstood.

To clarify some of these issues, we used this autoethnographic approach and combined it with a critical race theory (CRT) lens. In doing so, we sought to contribute to the dearth of literature addressing Muslim academic experiences, but also to make sense of our complex experiences. As a scholarly framework, CRT aims to give priority to those voices that have traditionally been excluded from knowledge systems. While CRT analyzes race, it also emphasizes the importance of an intersectional approach (see this TED talk for some of the work of critical race theorist Kimberle Crenshaw). We build on this framework, with a particular nod to the use of storytelling. In this context, (counter)storytelling has functioned as a vehicle to challenge commonly understood majority frames in the Ivory Tower of academia (ie, white, secular, and other forms of privileged positions related to race, class, and gender that have typically excluded us from our narratives. ) .

Our story is a form of reflective dialogue that takes readers through the relational and collective tensions we often find ourselves in. From the importance of constantly fighting to secure and represent Muslim-specific needs, to our academic abilities. colleagues questioned. The fatigue highlighted in our dialogue, simply being a Muslim in the academy, highlights the lack of empathy, care and often contempt for Muslims in the academy. As early career researchers passionate about promoting social justice in higher education, we believe thatthe fatigue and trauma of these experiences suppressed far more‘ of our potential.

From contempt to concern

So how does our article suggest moving forward? We understand that the sense of belonging is often multifaceted, especially when we detail the supportive relationships we are so fortunate to find in academia. However, we hope that our narrative and article will stimulate action by various actors in our institutional systems and that our dialogue has made a theoretical contribution to the sociological field. Below are some key messages from our article that readers should consider:

  1. At a time when Muslims around the world face a growing and constant threat of surveillance and scrutiny, please take the time to actively listen to your fellow Muslims. By sharing our stories, we disrupt the status quo and see the world through the “other” – open yourself up to this possibility and be sure to take action; a story is pointless unless it moves you toward positive change (Rodriguez, 2010).
  2. Autoethnography has often been studied for its legitimacy and practicality. We have found this experience healing and have drawn inspiration from other marginalized researchers in the field who have used this approach. Therefore, we encourage our fellow Muslim sisters and brothers in academia to use similar methods. Indeed, any critical researcher should consider the use of autoethnography as an integral research method to be applied in their own work in order not only to make sense of their own identity, but also to strengthen their own practice.
  3. Finally, let us not underestimate the place of religion in our systems of higher education when it comes to deciphering the methods we take to achieve justice. In many spaces of the academy, we have reached an opportunity to proactively address issues of gender, race, and class, recognizing the important role they play in shaping individuals’ outcomes and experiences. For those in positions of seniority and privilege within our institutions, a similar level of religious recognition will open up a whole new world of possibilities for the social justice efforts we must address.


Preliminary HE. (2021). Equality in Higher Education: Staff Statistics Report 2021.

Aiyad, M. (2021). On the decolonization of the academic community. Footnote.

Arday, J. (2020). Fighting the tide: understanding the difficulties faced by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) PhD students pursuing careers in academia. Philosophy and theory of education.

Aune, K. & Stevenson, J. (2017). Religion and Higher Education in Europe and North America. Routledge.

Bhopal, K., Brown, H., & Jackson, J. (2016). BME academic flight from the UK to higher education abroad: Aspects of marginalization and exclusion. British Journal of Educational Research, 42(2), 240–257.

Mahmud, A. and Islam, M. (2022). Intersectional oppression: A reflexive dialogue between Muslim academics and their experiences of Islamophobia and exclusion in UK higher education. Compass of Sociologye13041.

Park, JJ, & Bowman, NA (2015). Religion as bridging or bridging social capital: Race, religion, and interracial interactions in college students. Sociology of education, 88(1), 20–37.

Ramadan, I. (2017). The Experience of Muslim Academics in UK Higher Education [University of Edinburgh].

Ramadan, I. (2021). When Faith Intersects Gender: The Challenges and Successes of Muslim Academics’ Experiences. Gender and education.

Rodriguez, D. (2010). Storytelling in the Field: Race, Method, and Empowerment for Latina College Students. Cultural studies ↔ Critical methodologies, 10(6), 491–507.

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