College fraternities tend fit a very static mold in the public's imagination. Agree or disagree, there's merit to the “Animal House” stereotype of overwhelmingly white, socioeconomically homogeneous young men binge drinking, seducing sorority sisters, and making each other ritualistically drink vomit-inducing concoctions in the spirt of brotherhood and pledgship. The media overwhelmingly eats it up, too.
In February of this year, however, at the University of Texas, Dallas, a new type of fraternity was established. Going by the Greek letters Alpha Lambda Mu and its Arabic equivalent, Alif Laam Meem, the fraternity has earned the distinction as the first Muslim fraternity in the United States. It's legit, too, being recognized by the UT-Dallas Greek system becoming Wikipedia-official over the summer with a listing in the site's "fraternities and sororities in North America."
With the start of the school year, Alif Laam Meem - Alpha Lambda Mu has garnered significant media attention, earning nods in newspapers around the world for their charity work and outreach on social issues. It's also inspired many-a reference to the brothers "trading red solo cups for red kufi caps." But it also hasn't been without controversy, either, with Adam Abboud of the Cornell Muslim Dissents criticizing Alif Laam Meem for following the fraternity model. He writes, "I questioned why any religious organization would strive to be modeled 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."
After spotting the profile about Alif Laam Meem in The Independent, I reached out to the fraternity's founder and President, Ali Mahmoud, to learn more about the fraternity and its origins. Below, Ali Mahmoud tells the story of Alif Laam Meem - Alpha Lambda Mu and its blossoming future as a national organization.
How was Alif Laam Meem founded?
The initial idea of the fraternity started out with a conversation in the car with a friend of mine named Omar right before the Fall semester of 2012. Omar and I had been friends for as long as I can remember (we have baby pictures together), but he had always lived on the other side of town. When I got word that Omar would be going to the same university as I was, I got really excited. A few days before the semester began, I was touring Omar around the university. Omar had then brought up that he was planning to join FIJI (Phi Gamma Delta), a fraternity on campus. When I first heard this - my reaction was of slight disappointment. Most social fraternities on college campuses are known for behavior that contradicts Islamic values, especially excessive drinking and womanizing. I was afraid that Omar wasn't making a good choice entering college. Omar quickly mentioned other benefits of joining a fraternity: An easy way to make friends, a sense of belonging, and a lifelong network. I had no response - those were all very valid benefits. Omar and I joked about how there was no Muslim alternative, such as a Muslim fraternity. And that's where it all started.
After contemplating the idea for a few months, I consulted a mentor of mine who had put me in contact with Araf Hossain, our Co-Founder, because he had had a similar idea. We formed a council with a few other Muslims on campus who were interested, and shortly after establishing our structure and our basic rules, we sent out invites on February 12th, 2013 to people whom we believed would be interested in joining. A total of seventeen members initiated into the fraternity shortly afterward in February where they were knighted with red kufis (the red hats we wear, the Muslim counterpart to a yamaka) and each donated $100 to the fraternity as a symbol of the fraternity.
As we are just starting up with our social activities, we get word of a Men's Domestic Violence Rally that was held in March by Mayor Rawlings, the mayor of Dallas. We thought it would be a good idea to go and not only represent the Muslim community and the male community of Dallas but also stand for this issue as it is a human issue. We were received very well at the rally, constantly being asked for pictures and even getting a shout-out from the mayor on stage. Despite little local media coverage, a picture of us that was uploaded on to Facebook caught the attention of millions online as it was shared worldwide.
Shortly after we were getting requests to open up chapters all around the country, and soon enough a Muslim fraternity for undergraduate college students transitioned from being an idea to a national and historical phenomenon.
Why did you guys want to organize as a Greek organization at school?
We wanted to be able to be a part of the Greek system officially while also maintaing our beliefs and values. It is almost a metaphor to our identity as Muslim Americans. We want to work within the system without having to compromise some of the things we hold close to our hearts.
What are the backgrounds of some of your founding brothers?
Almost all of our members were born and raised in America, but ethnically our guys come from all kinds of backgrounds. I'm ethnically Egyptian but I was born and raised in Dallas. We have a Somalian brother who grew up in Canada and then moved to America, as well as Pakistani and Bengali brothers who were born and raised in Dallas as well. We have brothers that are mixed white and Arab, as well as brothers from other Arab countries that grew up here too.
What are some of the challenges you faced while organizing?
Starting an organization is always a huge task, and so the administrative side of things has been a struggle. Other than that, things have run amazingly smoothly. We've gotten plenty of support around the community, we just had our Rush Week with +35 rush, and our the brotherhood has meant the world to all of us.
Alif Laam Meem made the news for speaking out on social issues, perhaps most notably at a demonstration standing up against domestic violence. What issues do you hope your fraternity brings to light?
Anything that's a human issue is an issue to us, whether it's speaking out against domestic violence, fair trade violations, or any other form of oppression.
Within your school, what kind of social events do you have planned with other Greek organizations at UT-Dallas?
We definitely have plans to kick it with other Greek organizations, especially if there is some kind of way we can honor them for an achievement or holiday.
Greek organizations aren't typically seen as bastions of diversity in the United States. Do you think your opening the door for new people to form these chapters elsewhere?
We hope so! Just as we are accommodated and accepted, we hope that others are accommodated and accepted. We believe it's important to provide safe spaces for people from all backgrounds.
How has the reception been from more traditional fraternities on campus? The public at large?
We've received tons of support from local fraternities on campus as well as the public at large. It's been overwhelming.
How is Alif Laam Meem different from other fraternities on campus? Are there any particular stereotypes about Greek Life you hope to break down?
There are a wide array of fraternities that exist today, from service fraternities to social fraternities to cultural fraternities. We are a social fraternity, but we also have a strong emphasis on community service. We stay far from what many other social fraternities stereotyped as, including excessive drinking, malignant hazing, and womanizing. Similar to other fraternities, we establish lifelong relationships with each other. We provide a comfortable space for young Muslim American men to be themselves.
I also see our fraternity as somewhat similar to Black and Jewish fraternities that started in the early 20th century. Both of those fraternity types started out with minorities who felt that their organization was going to be a better way for them to stand up for their beliefs and rights as well as simply feel comfortable with like-minded individuals. Muslims in America are in a similar position, and our fraternity is fulfilling those needs as well as many more.
We're paving a new path for Muslims on campus to have an organic, wholesome college experience without having to compromise the values of their religion. The strong brotherhood that has developed allows us to have fun without being intoxicated or at the cost of others, and that means a lot to our members. We hope that as the fraternity grows, it will be a means for young Muslim men to learn how to be of upright character, how to excel academically, develop strong relationships, and feel comfortable with their identity as an American Muslim.
As a Muslim who comes from a generation that's spent most of its life in post-9/11 America, I can say that my experiences with my religion have often been on the defense; I've had to constantly debunk myths about my religion and tell people what Islam isn't. It's about time that Muslims in America get a chance to realize where we are and define our identities for ourselves instead of letting other people identify who we are for us. Giving young Muslim men a safe space in a fraternity where they can naturally develop who they are in relationship to their country and religion without the fear of being judged or attacked is something that I've seen as an urgent need for college-aged Muslims all around the country.
Do you see Alif Laam Meem spreading to other campuses? Have campuses elsewhere expressed interest elsewhere?
Absolutely! We actually have four chapters incubating right now at Cornell University, University of Pennsylvania, University of California San Diego, and University of Central Florida. We've gotten plenty more requests and are expecting chapters in the double digits within the next few years!
For more on Alif Laam Meem, check out Ali Mahmoud's speech in the video below or their Facebook page.