Hissan Bajwa ’05, general counsel at Breather, recalls that when he began law school in the fall of 2002, he felt a lack of community among the few Muslim students at NYU Law. “It was just a year after 9/11, and there was a lot going on in terms of Muslim-American issues,” Bajwa says. “And I felt that we didn’t have a foundation for a community at the Law School. So, I thought I should change that.” Bajwa began a petition to start what was then called the Islamic Law Students Association—and by the spring of 2003, it became an official student organization.
Fourteen years after its founding, the group Bajwa started—now called the Muslim Law Students Association (MLSA)—continues to serve as an important resource for Muslim students at the Law School. “MLSA really helps make law school feel like home,” says Nealofar Panjshiri ’18, one of MLSA’s co-chairs, along with Sidra Mahfooz ’18 and Razia Hamid ’18. Panjshiri adds that, especially if a student has the experience of being the only person in a class who comes from a Muslim background, “having that community is really important for your own well-being.”
Mahfooz agreed: “When I first came to campus, one of the first things I looked for was MLSA. I reached out, and I realized there was a strong community. [MLSA] has really enhanced my law school experience, especially since we have this really robust Islamic Center that’s right next door.”
The Islamic Center at NYU (ICNYU) is a focal point for Muslim life that serves the wider NYU population. MLSA participates in ICNYU’s regularly held halaqas, gatherings for the discussion of topics related to Islam. “One role we play is to connect all the law students to these broader services that ICNYU runs,” says Panjshiri. Both Mahfooz and Panjshiri emphasize the importance of ICNYU, explaining that many similar student organizations at other law schools do not have the support of an equivalent Islamic center.
Imam Khalid Latif, executive director of ICNYU and a university chaplain, notes that the law students who are connected to ICNYU through MLSA are themselves good resources for the center. “We’ve seen law students be present in helping with a lot of social justice–oriented work, advocacy work, and really providing a lot of support in terms of students who are interested in applying to law school,” says Latif, noting that two law students even joined a group of 12 students from across the university in December on an ICNYU trip to Standing Rock.
In addition to working with ICNYU, MLSA also puts on independent, Law School–specific events. To help foster connections and friendships among Muslim students, MLSA organizes dinners at the beginning of each semester and on the eve of religious holidays. Other events are focused on examining legal issues that particularly affect Muslims and promoting a broader understanding of Muslim life. “We like to put on events that either dispel stereotypes or myths about Islam as a religion,” says Panjshiri.
Recent events have included an open mic night with the Muslim Writers Collective of New York City; a fundraising dinner for the Syrian American Medical Society, co-sponsored with the Middle Eastern Law Students Association; and a panel on the ripple effects of Islamophobia, co-sponsored with several Law School centers and other student organizations.
MLSA has been particularly active in creating opportunities for students to respond to the events of the 2016 US election and the Trump administration’s executive orders on travel and immigration, which, Panjshiri says, “validated a lot of the fears that people in our community and in other communities of color and minorities have felt for a long time.” After the announcement of those executive orders, MLSA co-organized an emergency phone bank to call representatives and ask that they take action against restrictive immigration legislation. MLSA also coordinated a group of students to participate in a rally in response, led by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Panjshiri and Mahfooz note that they have observed increased social consciousness and political activism within MLSA and beyond. “Sometimes people brush off the issues, saying that the law is blind to color and to race, and I think this election turned that assumption on its head,” Panjshiri says. “It’s great to see more people are becoming politically involved,” adds Mahfooz. “More people are asking questions to get more information about their rights, or about Islamic norms.”
As students react to the changing political environment, the co-chairs note that it has been extremely helpful to be able to draw on the feelings of solidarity and togetherness within MLSA—which is true to Bajwa’s original vision for the resource he created. “The group has transformed into something that’s much bigger than what it was,” Bajwa says. “I think it really enriches the NYU Law fabric and culture.”
Posted May 11, 2017