When someone mentions college fraternities, a group of devout, celibate young men is not the first image that springs to mind. Thanks to endless gross-out Hollywood comedies, people are bombarded by images of privileged men drinking away their degrees at parties with the ubiquitous red and blue Solo cups, but something different is happening.
In February this year, America’s first Muslim Fraternity was established at the University of Texas; Ali Mahmoud is the President of Alpha Lambda Mu (or Alif Laam Meem) and its founder.
Although fraternities are seen as little more than glorified residential drinking clubs, it was not always that way.
Ali explains: “The primary purpose of a fraternity is to unite these men as brothers under a specific cause.” However, the reputation of fraternities changed in the 20th century, when fraternities became known for their party culture more than anything else.
If the idea of a fraternity is so negatively charged, what could have prompted the decision to establish a Muslim fraternity? Apparently, it all started out as a joke.
“The idea of a Muslim fraternity seemed heretical,” says Ali. However, as they worked on the idea they realised that many Muslim men at university felt that they either had to compromise their social life in order to live by the values of Islam, or compromise the values of Islam in order to have a social life. Ali believed a balance was achievable, and that was the path the establishment of Alpha Lambda Mu was trying to pave.
They created the fraternity, based on the principles of Islam - mercy, compassion, justice, integrity, honesty, unity, love, and sincerity - in order to prove that a modern Muslim college student could live as a dignified, respectable man and still have an organic college experience. They hope that in their fraternity, their members – ‘young, self-actualised Muslim men’ – will be servants to their families and every aspect of their greater community.
“Muslims are supposed to bring benefit and prevent harm to everyone and anything, not just Muslims.”
Alpha Lambda Mu has attracted some criticism for their appropriation of ‘exclusivist ideals’. One group, Cornell Muslim Dissents, was particularly vocal. The author of a viral post on tumblr wondered why any ‘religious organization would strive to be modelled after a gendered institution with roots in white supremacy and elitism. I am all for Muslim unity and coalition, but we need to revolutionize what that looks like, rather than adopting discriminatory structures’.
Ali’s response? “In order for us to craft this Muslim-American identity, we’re going to need to have a number of conversations along the way. It’s difficult to have this conversation when we’re constantly telling people what Islam isn’t instead of what it is due to pre-emptive attacks with hidden agendas. I think it’s time to calm down and have intelligent, open-minded conversations if we want to make any progress. We’re taking what’s good from the fraternity model and leaving what’s bad.”
The fraternity is leaving the culture of excessive partying, and the elitist mentality by choosing members based on that which is in their control. “We’re not looking for perfect Muslims. None of us is perfect. We would rather take a humble struggler who understands his faults and believes that he can overcome his challenges by joining the fraternity, than someone who is too blinded by arrogance to see any room for self-improvement. We’ll grow together, we’ll keep each other in check, and we’ll hopefully all come out as better people and better contributors to society.”
The role of Islam in America is a notoriously divisive subject; in the wake of the Boston bombings anti-Islamic sentiment was everywhere on social and traditional media even before any information was known about the perpetrator of the attack. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the predictable response of the right-wing media, the Islamic community was at the forefront of the response to the Boston attack, with Alpha Lambda Mu among those fund-raising for the victims. Yet, Islam is still often vilified in the national press.
In such a seemingly hostile environment, could it be possible that Alpha Lambda Mu was a step towards the further integration of Muslims into America?
“Absolutely not,” says Ali. “We cannot integrate or assimilate into a society that we’re already a part of.
“I personally grew up in Plano, Texas. I went to public school, I played Xbox Live all the time with my friends who weren’t Muslim, and I regrettably ate too much fast food. I’m a proud American Muslim, and I see no contradiction of those two titles. Islam is my moral compass that guides every aspect of my life, but it also leaves room for our cultural experiences.”
Something that Ali speaks particularly eloquently on is the interesting position of being a Muslim in modern America: “One of the beautiful things about Islam is that it is a religion that is meant to fit different times and different places.
“Yes, there are core values that do not change regardless of where the religion is established, but there is room for flexibility. An exciting challenge we have as young Muslims in the United States is figuring out how Islam fits in 21st century America. We can only do this with a strong understanding of the religious tradition and a strong understanding of the cultural reality of our day. The synthesis of the two is indeed Islam itself, and lacking in either understanding calls for recalibration. The goal is balance.”
Texas – to the uninitiated – seems like an odd place for a Muslim fraternity to establish itself, but Ali is quick to leap to its defence: “The amount of love we’ve been getting from all around the world eclipses the negativity that Muslims have received and gives us hope for a brighter future of tolerance, understanding, peace, and love for each other.”
With identity crisis fast becoming a feature of the modern teenager, creating a safe environment for Muslims to hold onto their beliefs without becoming ostracised from the wider community seems like a positive solution to a tricky dilemma.
“We hope that after all is said and done, we will have a strong group of guys who will stand up for social justice, for the needy, and for their societies just as the religion calls them to do.”
Jo Barrow is editor of York Vision, a student newspaper