Wellesley’s Muslim Chaplain Speaks with NPR About Summer Program for Young Muslim Campers

Muslim youths
Photo provided by Maggie Starbard
August 29, 2017

Muslim kids, teens, young adults, and parents have gathered in the woods of northern California for the past 55 summers to learn about faith and have fun, attending the oldest camp of its kind for young Muslims in America. But, as NPR recently reported on All Things Considered, today the camp has a different meaning: It’s a place of peace and acceptance for Muslim youth in a country where anti-Muslim sentiment seems to be rising sharply.

Called Muslim Youth Camp, the program was founded in 1961 by Marghoob Quraishi and his wife, Renae “Iffat” Quraishi, to help new American Muslims find a sense of community. Marghoob Quraishi died in 2005, and now his daughters run the camp.

One of his daughters, Amira Quraishi, is the Muslim chaplain at Wellesley College. She told NPR that in 1960 there weren’t many mosques or Muslim clubs in North America, so her father founded Islamic groups at the university campuses he attended. And then her parents started Muslim Youth Camp.

Quraishi recently said at the camp, “My father, he saw Islam as a force for good, equality, social justice, and pursuing knowledge. He saw that these were new Muslims in a new country and they needed to try to figure out how they were going to be Muslim in America. The way my dad described it is that he just started walking, and then after 20 years, looked back and noticed people were coming with him.”

The Quraishis’ youngest daughter grew up curious about Islamic values that transcend culture. She said that her experiences as a young person at the Muslim Youth Camp shaped her love for a deeply spiritual and intellectual expression of Islam.

Quraishi said, “Both growing up at the Muslim Youth Camp and then being its head counselor for two decades has reinforced how community is built through compassion, striving to understand one another, and having a sense of humor with ourselves and others as we grow.”

Additionally, she said that Muslim Youth Camp created an anchor reminding her to humble herself, and appreciate something about everyone in her role as college chaplain,  “respecting the ever-present, God-given right to disagree, letting me know that I always have something to learn.”

However, Quraishi acknowledged that the camp’s focus has evolved over the decades. Today it has a different meaning for this new generation. She said, “It’s a pleasant reprieve for the campers who are increasingly discriminated against just for being Muslim.” In fact, she added, after the September 11 attacks, the camp was threatened; this resulted in sessions with campers on how to deal with mounting anti-Islamic rhetoric.

Quraishi’s older sister, Asifa Quraishi-Landes, gives a seminar at the camp on how to answer hostile and misinformed questions about being Muslim, such as, “Why do Muslims lie and want to change American law?”

Quraishi-Landes is a scholar of both constitutional law and Islamic jurisprudence, or sharia, at the University of Wisconsin Law School. She explained that sharia is a lot like Catholic canon law or Jewish law, but anti-Muslim hate groups tell people it’s a threat to the American way of life. She said that, although pervasive negativity toward Muslims is a rather heavy topic for summer camp, it’s what being Muslim in America is today.

The camp has been home to many current Muslim American leaders, like Jihad Turk, the founding president of Bayan Claremont, the country’s first Islamic graduate school. Another former attendee is Shahed Amanullah, who was a senior adviser for technology at the U.S. Department of State and has been named one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world several times by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre.

Muslim Youth Camp is steeped in American camp tradition, noted NPR—hiking, swimming, s’mores—mixed in with prayer and classes.

Quraishi said that her father just thought it was good for people to be together, and to be able to pray together as well as have fun.