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Muslim Students Threatened by Stereotypes: Perception Inception

In the wake of terrorist attacks around the world—from Ankara, Turkey, to Brussels, Belgium—Muslims are facing more discrimination than ever before, and Muslim students at American University are no exception. In fact, Aman Abdelhamid, president of the Muslim Student Association (MSA) at AU, has even been followed home from the metro. 

“Luckily, it has only happened twice,” she said.

But it wasn’t the only time she’s feared for her safety. Once, she came across an article written about her that included her address and phone number.

Abdelhamid, a sophomore from Maryland, comes from a family of Palestinian immigrants. Despite incidents of discrimination, Abdelhamid is dedicated to increasing awareness about Muslim students and the issues they face on campus. 

Her work has been especially important recently  after an unknown person or group of people hung hate posters around campus in November. The posters came from the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a Los Angeles-based organization founded by conservative writer David Horowitz and “dedicated to the defense of free societies whose moral, cultural and economic foundations are under attack by enemies both secular and religious, at home and abroad,“ according to its website.  

When a conservative campus organization at the University of California, Los Angeles, invited Horowitz to give a speech back in 2011, he called Islam a “sick death cult,” and received applause for his statement. So it was unsurprising that the night the posters went up, several students contacted Abdelhamid, telling her that they felt unsafe on campus. 

“They felt there was a target [on them],” she said. “They were very threatening images that [made] students legitimately scared.” 

After the incident, Abdelhamid learned that this was not the first instance of derogatory posters appearing on U.S. college campuses. That same month at Virginia Tech, someone wrote, “On 11/11 we’ll kill all the Muslims,” on a wall. 

“That’s when students really didn’t feel safe on campus,” she said. 

But the posters themselves were not the biggest problem; it was AU’s reaction to them that frustrated Muslim students the most. 

“In the beginning [the administration] didn’t take down the posters,” Abdelhamid said. “If the MSA went and put posters in the tunnel, they would have taken them down immediately because you’re not supposed to do that…and on top of that they had really horrible messages on them, and they didn’t do much about it. It was really upsetting.” 

As reported by The Eagle after the posters appeared, Public Safety officers did not remove the poster in the tunnel because it was “crazy glued” to a traffic box that belongs to the city and they were afraid they would damage it. 

Eventually, Public Safety did coordinate with the MSA to ensure Muslim students felt safe and called Abdelhamid with updates on the situation. Still, she was bothered by the fact that the posters appeared at all. 

“The hard part about this is we didn’t know who it was—although it was an outside foundation, it doesn’t mean that students inside the school weren’t part of it,” she said. 

Even though he did not see the posters himself, Imam Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, AU’s Muslim chaplain, felt strongly about them.

“If there are people on campus that feel that way, they’re utter cowards because they haven’t come out to stand behind their trouble-making,” he said. 

Ahmad believes that Muslims are persecuted for two reasons, both rooted in history. In the Middle Ages, Christians saw Muslims as a threat to their way of life, which resulted in a lot of propaganda. Later, after the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the end of the Cold War, the former hegemonic enemies needed a new threat to unite against. For that, he said, they chose Islam. 

“For a long time, the Muslim society was the most tolerant one on earth,” Ahmad said. “To make that argument [that it is not], in my mind, requires deliberate distortions.” 

According to Abdul Rashid Moten, a professor at the International Islamic University Malaysia, anti-Muslim rhetoric is not a new phenomenon. In fact, Moten said, it is centuries old; it has merely increased in intensity due to fear of the increasing number of Muslim citizens in North America and Europe. He charges these countries with “maligning Islam…as a religion of terror and extremism.”

Moten believes that the media tends to portray all Muslims as extremists, though this is not supported by statistics. According to a 2010 Gallup Poll, 89 percent of U.S. Muslims stated that the targeting and killing of civilians by individuals or small groups is never justified. Muslims had the highest negative response to this question, followed by Jews at 75 percent; Protestants and Catholics came in at 71 percent.

According to Imam Omar Ali, who leads a mosque in Indiana, terrorism is not condoned by the Quran—in fact, it is explicitly forbidden. He refers to Chapter 5, verse 32 of the Quran, which, when translated, states, “We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves is as if he had saved mankind entirely.”

“It’s not even a question,” Ali said. “Unjust killing is forbidden.” 

According to Ali, terrorists are driven by politics and emotions, not religion. 

“They’re not representative of the faith,” he said. 

While the posters were the most overt display of discrimination against Muslim students at AU, prejudice is something that Azza Altiraifi, a senior,  said that they face almost daily. She said she feels discriminated against “only all the time.”

Altiraifi recalls a time in a law class where a professor asked about the meaning of constitutional rights, then pointed at her and said, “You don’t have to be American to answer.” Another professor told the class that America was losing the war in Afghanistan because of Islam, calling it an oppressive religion. He told the class that women who wear headscarves are oppressed, despite the fact that Altiraifi was sitting right there, wearing her scarf. 

“I walked out of that class after giving him a piece of my mind,” Altiraifi said. Unfortunately, she said that experiences like those are normal for Muslim students.

“This is a microcosm for what is happening in a broader sense in the society that we exist in, which is vehemently Islamophobic, which is vehemently racist, and people are reflecting that here in their academic discourse,” she said. “And sometimes the problems that I’m seeing in the university is that, the types of things that are being said, which really just constitute pure vitriol, are being presented as though they constitute legitimate academic discourse.”

She believes this creates a learning environment which has become hostile toward minorities in general, not just Muslims. 

And it’s not confined to college campuses. Abdelhamid points to the presidential primaries as a clear demonstration of hostility—most obviously Republican candidate Donald Trump and his overtly racist statements. 

Abdelhamid said Trump’s power and momentum is an eye-opener, not just for Muslims, but for all people. 

In response to Trump’s calling for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” in December, several media organizations conducted surveys to see how many people agreed with him. YouGov, CBS, NBC/WSJ and Bloomberg Politics all found similar results: about one-third of Americans agreed with this policy and about half of Republican respondents supported it. 

“In my view, Trump is an entertainer, a narcissistic entertainer,” Ahmad said.  “He is doing this for the attention and he is getting it, so he’s happy.” 

Despite the backlash she faces, Abdelhamid is determined to help people better understand Islam.

“I think it’s a big part on the Muslim Student Association and Muslims on campus to educate people whenever they can about what’s actually right in Islam, ” she said. 

For her, this means education for both Muslims and non-Muslims. Muslim students need to have resources, like the MSA, where they can ask questions to better understand their faith and better explain it to others. 

“I am so open to people asking me questions,” Abdelhamid said. “I am actually really happy when people ask me questions because I feel like that is the only way we are going to learn more about each other.” 

Likewise,  Ahmad encourages students to come to him when they face challenges and discrimination. 

“That’s why I like having this position,” he said. “So I can be a resource for them and try to make it a tiny bit easier.”  

Both feel that dialogue is ultimately the way to change hearts and minds.

“Polls show that people with extreme views against Muslims are people who don’t know any Muslims,” Ahmad said. 

According to a YouGov survey conducted in December 2015, 74 percent of respondents said they did not work with a Muslim individual and 67 percent said they do not have friends who are Muslim.  Additionally, 35 percent of Americans surveyed had a very unfavorable opinion of the Islamic religion and 23 percent had a somewhat unfavorable opinion. 

But when it came to the second question—how well they understand the Islamic religion—over 50 percent answered in the negative. Yet, only 36 percent were interested in learning more about Islam. 

The data may be explained in part by the fact that, according to Abdelhamid, some media organizations tend to portray Muslims as violent terrorists, which is not what it truly means to be a Muslim. 

“I wish people knew that Islam is derived from 'sallam,' which means peace,” she said. 

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