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‘We’re going beyond identity’: Shiite students head to Harvard for first national conference

More than 270 Shiite undergraduate and graduate students and recent alumni are gathering at Harvard this weekend to discuss spirituality, sectarianism, activism and more at the sold-out Ma’rifa Conference.

Laila Tauqeer at Harvard University’s Smith Campus Center. RNS photo by Aysha Khan

CAMBRIDGE (RNS) — Laila Tauqeer has only been president of the Harvard Islamic Society for three months, but she has been busy.

This weekend, she’s hosting the country’s first national conference for Shiite Muslim college students around the country.

On Friday (Feb. 28), more than 270 Shiite undergraduates, graduate students and recent alumni will gather at Harvard’s student organization center to discuss spirituality, sectarianism, geopolitics and faith-based activism at the sold-out Ma’rifa Conference.

While many participants have been drawn to the program seeking discussions about identity, Tauqeer says her aim is to create a space where young Shiites can delve deeper, “going beyond identity to re-imagine the Shiite paradigm in America.”

“I want folks to walk away asking themselves the question of what it means to be a Shiite Muslim,” said Tauqeer, a junior studying the history of science. “The answer is up to them, but I want them to go on that journey.”

Speakers at the conference, which begins Friday night with an open mic session and runs through Saturday, include activist and ethical fashion entrepreneur Hoda Katebi; religious scholar Sayyid Mohammad Baqir Kashmiri of the Imam Mahdi Association of Marjaeya; Sheikh Mahdi Mohammadpour Shahkolahi, an instructor at the Mizan Institute; Sayyid Sulayman Ali Hasan, director of the Ahl al-Bayt Islamic Seminary; poet Hidaya Nawee, and more.

Tauqeer said Shiites often see themselves solely as a marginalized identity, because their tradition is much smaller than the predominant Sunni Muslim population and adherents face often violent persecution. They can end up defining themselves by what they are not, rather than who they are.

“I want to cultivate conversation about how to stop talking about being Shiite in relation to Sunni Muslims,” she said. “Once we’ve talked about identity, we’ve grieved our hearts out, done the comparisons, defended ourselves and justified our beliefs — once we’ve done all of that, we move on, and we talk about how we can become better Shiite Muslims within Shiite Islam.”

The event is community-supported, with no funding from Harvard, Tauqeer said. Though her team budgeted for 200 attendees, when they sold out tickets almost immediately, they decided to squeeze in another 70 students from the massive waitlist.

The response to the conference shows that creating spaces for Shiite college students to come together matters, Tauqeer said.

The Ahlul-Bayt Student Association Network, a virtual umbrella organization for Shiite organizations at campuses around the U.S. and Canada, may be the only other organization doing such work at a national scale.

“I’m a pretty fresh Muslim, so there’s always a lot of room for me to learn,” said Chris Castillo, a student at William Rainey Harper College in Illinois who converted to Islam in 2017. While he has attended retreats at mosques and conferences, such as The Muslim Group of USA and Canada’s convention in Chicago, he has never before experienced a dedicated space for Shiite students.

“I’m really looking forward to meeting other Muslims, making connections with the community and getting motivated to be a better person,” Castillo said.

Tauqeer was partly inspired to develop Ma’rifa based on her work as an executive officer in the Taha Collective, a local community organization hosting service events, spiritual gatherings and educational talks aimed at Shiite students and young professionals in Boston. Inspired by the Taha Collective’s interactive, Q&A-oriented lectures, Ma’rifa has arranged to hold open office hours for each speaker. 

“We need to have that discussion about how to cultivate sacred spaces in a secular Western society that forces you to put your religion in a box,” Tauqeer said. “How do you take your religion to your classrooms, to your protests, to whatever spaces you’re going to?”

Houra Sadeghi at the UMass Boston Campus Center. RNS photo by Aysha Khan

Houra Sadeghi, a junior at the University of Massachusetts Boston studying international relations and philosophy, said that there are few places for reflection and development outside of Shiite mosques.

“This is not something that you hear about often,” she said. “Of course, we all gather in our own communities, but I don’t know of many Western institutions where there is space allocated for us. It’s harder because you’re fighting the double marginalization of both Islamophobia and anti-Shiism rhetoric.”

Sadeghi said Muslim student organizations typically try to focus on unity instead of recognizing and celebrating the diversity of Islamic traditions.

“You cannot take the minority and try to shove it into the majority and call that unity,” she said. “We have to acknowledge our differences. We have to establish our own identities. And then once we do we move inward together.”

Tauqeer said most Muslims she meets at Harvard are open to learning about minority traditions. Nearby, MIT and Northeastern University both have Shiite Muslim chaplains or advisers. While Harvard does not have one, the university has several Shiite professors who teach Islamic studies, and the school is also home to the Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs, where both Tauqeer and Sadeghi are undergraduate researchers. 

Several other members of the Harvard Islamic Society’s board are also Shiite. In her previous position as director of Islamic learning at the Harvard Islamic Society — her successor and predecessor in that position have both been Shiite, too — she focused on teaching the students about different Islamic traditions, from Ismailis to Twelvers to Ahmadis, and emphasizing coexistence on campus.

It isn’t as easy to hold these conversations on every campus, though.

Her sister, who attends school in Sacramento, faced issues arranging a program on Muharram, and when she tried to organize a halaqa, or study circle, on Karbala, the school’s Muslim Students Association officers insisted that an academic host the discussion to ensure it remained “unbiased.”

Tauqeer said that talking about such differences and points of view should not be seen as divisive.

“My humanity is tied to my religion, and if you deny my beliefs then you’re denying a huge part of me,” she said.