Steve Mustapha Elturk is getting his Master of Arts in Social Justice at Marygrove College, a small Catholic liberal arts school located in Detroit. During a class break, he walks down a hallway to a sparse room with a chalk board on the wall.
“This is an interfaith prayer room at Marygrove College,” says Elturk. “We have rugs in the basket for those who would like to pray during our times of prayer.”
As a practicing Muslim, Elturk prays five times a day. A few years back, the college converted the room to offer a space for everyone to pray, but particularly to accommodate its growing Muslim student population. Not long after that, Marygrove created a special social justice cohort exclusively for Muslim students like Elturk.
“Even at a Catholic college, there you go!” says Dr. Brenda Bryant, chair of Marygrove’s Social Justice Program. Bryant says the master’s program trains “scholar activists.” It was started after the September 11th attacks. This is the first time the school has had an all Muslim cohort.
The group is diverse. It’s made up of students who have been living in and around Detroit, but who originally came from the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Europe. They have professional backgrounds in media, art, education and more. Some are Sunni, some are “Shia.”
The idea for the program came from, Dr. Achmat Salie, a local Islamic faith leader. Salie says he thought the program would be popular with Muslims who hold high-level degrees from foreign countries that are sometimes less valued in the U.S. In an email Salie adds that having a group of Muslims study social justice makes sense because the Quron emphasizes fairness and love. “Muslims justifiably preserve the Fast of Ramadan,” says Salie. “Should they not exert 100 times more effort in championing causes of justice and human rights on their behalf and on behalf of others?”
Bryant, the program chair, says the college was on board from the start. But she says some community members were a little confused as to why the group was segregated.
“Actually when we announced it we had people say things like ‘Why did they have to meet together?’”
Bryant says the rationale was that, “We figured that as a group if they came together, they would have similar issues. And then they could support each other.”
One of the students who joined is Najah Mousa. He is a founder and Imam of the American Islamic Community Center in Madison Heights and one of several imams, or mosque leaders, in the program. Mousa says social justice ideals, such as fighting to end oppression, are written into his faith.
“We believe that based on the Holy Quran that the prophets, all prophets of god, they came to spread justice,” says Mousa. “I believe that if anyone has the ability to spread justice and he didn’t put an effort in this field, this is against humanity, against religiosity, against all values and principles of religions.”
“We believe that based on the Holy Quran that the prophets, all prophets of god, they came to spread justice.”
The President of Marygrove, Dr. Elizabeth Burns, says opening up the program to this particular group has offered a lesson for everyone.
“Having a cohort of Muslim imams did bring readings and teachings from the Quran into the classroom,” says Burns. “You use it to build on where you’re going and make people realize, have people realize, that we are more alike than we are different. And it’s been a very good growth experience for our faculty as well as the students.”
The effort, Burns admits, is also a good marketing plan. The college had to close its undergraduate school earlier in the year due to declining enrollment. Marygrove currently offers only two master’s degree programs on campus, though others are offered online.
“It’s no secret that the school has been in difficulty. And we are hoping to grow our enrollment because we’re still enrollment driven.”
Marygrove is open to offering social justice classes to other specific communities in the future. One idea is to offer a program to pastors in African American churches. So far nothing has been set in stone.
As for this cohort, Elturk, an engineer turned Imam, says he’s excited to take the principles of social justice back to the folks he works with as an imam and president of the Islamic Organization of North America (IONA), headquartered in Warren, Mich.
“Most of the members of the Muslim community are not really open to the outside Muslim community, if you know what I mean. So, I’m trying to reach out to my people in the hope that they reach out to the larger community and stand up for the rights of people,” says Elturk.
Just a few days after the interview, he participated in his first civil disobedience. Elturk took part in a protest in Lansing, advocating for the rights of the vulnerable and poor.
Since reporting for this story began, Marygrove announced its involvement in a new initiative to educate children from “cradle to career.” The school says the new project will not displace its on-campus offerings like the social justice program.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated on 10/11/2018 to include a quote from Dr. Achmat Salie.