By Scotty Schenck, news correspondent
Dozens of people packed into the dimly light Sacred Space at Northeastern University to hear Alex Kern, Center for Spirituality Dialogue and Service (CSDS) director, deliver opening statements for a vigil in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Paris. In his gentle voice he introduced numerous speakers to console those affected in the wake of violence in France. One woman came forward, with a white hijab wrapped around her head.
“Absolutely nothing can justify these senseless acts and we, as Muslims and human beings, unequivocally and explicitly condemn … all acts of violence,” President of the Islamic Society of Northeastern University (ISNU) and sophomore civil engineering major, Sarah Elbakri said. “Islam does not condone and completely forbids terror and the killing of innocent people.”
The leader of ISNU was stern in her condemnation of the attacks, which radical Islamist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took credit for. Elbakri left the podium and melted back into the crowd and the soft shadows of the room.
Though many Muslims do not consider ISIS to be an Islamic group for a surfeit of reasons, including breaking religious rules, Muslims fear that consequences of the terror attacks in Paris are coming. It wouldn’t be the first time that Islamist terrorism caused hatred and discrimination against the Muslim community.
After 9/11, Americans saw a spike in anti-Islamic hate crimes, a vicious backlash to the terrorist attacks. Public spaces such as parks and airports, workplaces and even college campuses were platforms for violence against what people believed was a representation of radicalism and hate. Americans became familiar with the phrase radical Muslim, but it took longer for another to catch on: Islamophobia, the dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims. Now more than ever, after the tragedy in Paris last month, college administrators and student groups are trying to protect their Muslim students from hatred and discrimination.
Northeastern has held numerous events to counteract hate, whether it’s through offering vigils, safe spaces or educational events about the religion and interfaith dinners. While many students are grateful for what the university is doing, some still believe more can be done.
“Unfortunately, Islamophobia is quite rampant. The situation is very complicated on the ground, as any Muslim during the war in Iraq can tell you,” Executive Director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations—Massachusetts (CAIR—MA) John Robbins said. “The Muslim community has certainly faced discrimination in different points in its history. Every newcomer has gone through this period of difficulty. Islamophobia ebbs and flows. There are periods of more severe Islamophobia and periods where it’s less severe.”
This hatred can have impacts on young Muslims. For Osmaan Shahid, a Muslim student and sophomore biomedical physics major at Northeastern, he said he doesn’t have to worry about that on campus. He said he feels safer there than in the general Boston area, but feels the city is a fairly safe space for Muslims in general.
“In Boston, people are a lot more open minded. There’s also a very large Muslim population. I don’t have to be afraid to be Muslim here,” Shahid said.
Shahid said he was teased at times in middle school for being Muslim, but he has not felt discriminated against since being in college. In fact, several students feel quite safe on Northeastern’s campus and that ISNU is a resource they can turn to if something were to happen. Shahid said groups like ISIS try to divide the Muslim and non-Muslim by using terror.
“One fear that I have is that … there is going to be a large spike in Islamophobia because of what happened (in France). Just because [extremists] do something for the sake of Islam, it does not mean that Islam is okay with it,” Shahid said. “I was talking to my father the other day and he said ‘Our religion is being hijacked by these groups.’”
If terror spikes hatred can be answered by looking at the data. According to the FBI, 28 anti-Islamic hate crimes were reported in 2000 in the United States. This number skyrocketed the following year with 481 reported hate crimes. Since then, the number of reports have held steady between 100 and 160 a year.
According to some experts, this discrimination against Muslims happens every few years when events bring Muslims into the view of those who already have prejudice against Muslims. Robbins said he is concerned that recent attacks, like those in Paris and San Bernardino, may summon similar sentiments from the shadows.
“We’re seeing real, genuine violence, physical violence … we haven’t seen in 14 years,” Robbins said.
Just days after the attack, a mosque in Connecticut was fired upon; however, no one was in the building at the time of the shooting. Some students believe the recent terror attacks will only add to the ignorance and malice felt toward the group.
The Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service (CSDS) is a program of Northeastern University that aims to maintain a place where students can come and freely practice their faith with no hatred. Many on Northeastern’s campus have been working to make sure Muslims have felt comfortable since before 9/11 even took place.
Elbakri said ISNU is also an important resource for non-Muslims to better understand the Muslim community on campus and that it is often seen as the face of the Muslim students at Northeastern. After the vigil on Monday night, the group held their weekly prayer service in the Sacred Space, called Deen and Dine. Deen is Arabic for prayer and Elbarki said it is open to anyone who wants to know more about Islam and how it doesn’t stand for attacks like in Paris or California.
“ISNU is against the violence and acts of terror that occur worldwide,” Elbakri said. “We try to provide a source of Islamic content and knowledge for the students here or staff or anybody who wants to learn more.”
Northeastern has history of safety, tolerance
When the twin towers fell, though many Americans wanted justice, others used the event to let out their hatred against the general Muslim community.
According to experts, terrorist attacks do not inspire Islamophobia but give those who have existing prejudice the ability to lash out at a group which was not in the public’s eye. Co-director of the Middle East Center at Northeastern University Denis Sullivan agreed with the sentiment.
“These are idiots. People will use almost anything to ratchet up their campaigns of hate,” Sullivan said. “In the greater area I see hate crimes against Muslims on the rise. I find Northeastern to be a pretty safe space.”
Sullivan said he was at Northeastern University and the chair of the political science department when 9/11 took place. He said when talking to Muslims on campus about the time period, they felt that just by stepping onto Northeastern’s campus they felt safer.
“I have heard no reports from Muslim students that have told me there is a negative climate. Walking on campus they felt like they were home,” Sullivan said. “The climate around the U.S (in 2001) was horrible. Even just jeering or comments on the T, some verbal abuse. We really worked our [expletives] off in 2001 to do teach-in’s (about Islam).”
According to FBI hate crime data from 2001, Northeastern reported one religious hate crime. That year Harvard reported 0, Boston College reported 0 and Boston University reported 2. The FBI’s data give categories of which religion is targeted by hate crimes in a year and colleges/universities’ occurrences of hate crimes by the type of bias (i.e. race, religion, sexual orientation). However, it does not breakdown the specific faiths attacked at each college/university. Statistically speaking it’s more likely these crimes were anti-Semitic, as in any given year hate crimes against Jews were 2-5 times more frequent. Even in 2001 hate crimes reported against those of the Jewish faith were more than double anti-Islamic reports, 1043 to 431.
In 2014, Northeastern reported one religious hate crime, according to the FBI data.
Aside from feeling safe on campus, Sullivan said there were hate crimes and abuse at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, a recently built mosque in Roxbury, which some students from Northeastern attend. In addition, he said complications happened on-campus with the government after 9/11.
“We’re scrambling to find out what to do. It was frantic. The FBI came to me and said ‘We want to work with your Arab and Muslim community … to prevent another attack,’” Sullivan said.
He said he worked to connect them with Arab and Muslim students but after a while some of those students reported being harassed by the FBI and problems with the government’s approach. Sullivan said he remembers reports of government agents showing up to “observe” the mosque in Cambridge but not speak to anyone there.
Due to tense relations with law enforcement like this, Executive Director of the Muslim Justice League Shannon Erwin said fewer hate crimes against Muslims are reported. The Department of Justice released a study in 2013 stated from 2007-2011 nearly two-thirds of all hate crimes went unreported.
“We struggle a lot with convincing Muslims in our communities that it’s okay to report (hate crimes.) They have all sorts of ways of talking themselves out of it. They need to report this,” Erwin said from her Boston office. “Law enforcement has not always been a friend of Muslims. We really advise people to only speak to the FBI with an attorney.”
Junior international affairs and economics combined major Esraa Sabah said she has faced discrimination, though not on campus. As an international student from Bahrain, she said she travelled around the United States and said most of these occurrences were benign, usually muttering.
“In California one time … it was an older woman and she was African American. She said ‘You people come to this country and just create chaos,’” Sabah said, not realizing to whom the comments were directed. “I didn’t understand what was going on until I looked at her and saw she was talking to me. I assumed … as a minority you would accept or understand another minority.”
Sabah said she let it go because the woman was in a wheelchair and thought she seemed senile. Sabah also said since the Paris attacks she has noticed more people staring at her in Boston, likely because of her hijab.
Discrimination can cause separation between Muslim and non-Muslim communities, but it can be reversed, Erwin said. She said there needs to be dialogue, but as long as government surveillance of Muslim groups continues, Muslims will feel less included and turn away from speaking at publicly.
“The overwhelming feelings of targeting can make people even less likely to talk. There’s important information Muslim communities have to share. We can’t let this bigotry limit our public debate,” Erwin said. “I feel a personal responsibility to speak about this … because I care about peace, because I care about justice. I care about my country and my community.”
Although Sabah said it’s not her responsibility to educate, she is more than happy to discuss her faith and answer questions. Sabah said she has always felt safe on Northeastern’s campus and directly following the Boston Bombing the people of Boston didn’t slam the door in her face.
“The Boston Bombing happened (but) I wasn’t here yet. I had contacted a couple people at Boston to rent an apartment … before anything had happened,” she said. “The couples that were going to rent me their apartment didn’t falter,”
Outside of campus, Sabah said, living in America as an Arab comes with the responsibility of being attentive.
“Be aware that not everyone understands your culture or your beliefs,” Sabah said. “I don’t have a doubt in my mind that maybe my emails are monitored or maybe my texts.”
‘Putting a human face to Islam’
The night before Thanksgiving break at Northeastern wasn’t still, though many students had left the campus. It was abuzz with the clamoring of voices, not from vitriol but warmhearted, light conversation and laughs. The John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute was indeed alive that Tuesday night, a show of solidarity from the InterVarsity Multiethnic Christian Fellowship to ISNU.
“What is happening with anti-Muslim sentiment is not okay. It’s important to recognize part of that is coming from Christians,” said Taylor Straatmann, an E-Board member for InterVarsity and junior international affairs and economics combined major.
Steam came from the baked ziti, green beans, and other vegetarian sides that were made by students and the meat catered by Boston Shwarma. All of it was halal, or permissible for Muslims to eat. Not even two weeks had passed since the Paris attacks, but Straatmann and the E-Board for the group knew something had to be done to quell discriminatory sentiments.
“We’ve been thinking of how we can respond to the brokenness in the world. No one should be ostracized or blamed in the way the Muslim community has,” Straatmann said. “We were seeing was so much fear around Islam. A lot of ‘Well, this is because of the religion,’ or ‘Islam promotes these things’ even though we know that’s not true.”
To some experts, interfaith dinners have a special power to unite and give a sense of community. There are proposed solutions to combat Islamophobia and many believe that no approach will work alone. Having safe spaces to protect students from discrimination and promote dialogue, educational events about Islam are other ways to fight hate.
One advocate of interfaith events is Northeastern’s Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service (CSDS), who maintains a safe space for all students to express their faith. CSDS was founded four years ago, replacing the Center for Spiritual Life and became more focused on interfaith dialogue. It is currently led by Executive Director Alexander Kern.
“ISNU is one of the largest, most active, most vital student organizations on campus. They’re an exemplary group,” Kern said. “I’ve been impressed with the strength of the leadership. They’re one of the most active groups on our interfaith council.”
To combat Islamophobia, Assistant Director of CSDS and practicing Muslim Karin Firoza said is it not only important for Muslim students to have a place to go, but also a place for non-Muslims to seek answers to questions about Islam.
“Is it [Muslims’] responsibility to educate? Yes. I think if people have questions we need to educate. Is it a requirement? I don’t think so. But it is important,” Firoza said. “I don’t think [the solution is] having an Islam 101 table. I think it’s getting out there and being involved in the community, being involved in movements on campus. Educate through your actions, not through your words.”
However, Northeastern junior Isabella Cuomo said safe spaces may not be enough. The international affairs major and former intern at the American Islamic Congress for three years said educational events and bringing in Islamic experts may start dialogue, but students also need to be able to properly report discrimination on campus.
“I think it has to be multi-layered. Having a safe space to practice you’re religion is great,” Cuomo said. “I think the other thing that should be promoted within any school campus for the police … to have more information if there is discrimination against you, or hate crimes or Islamophobia.”
Associate Dean for Cultural, Residential and Spiritual Life Bob Jose said Northeastern police and residential staff all know how to report hate crimes and discrimination, which focuses on comforting affected individuals. He said when something written on a wall or door that was hateful in a residence hall, they first ask if potential victims are okay. Then, they call NUPD who files a report. After that, a floor or building meeting is called to explain what happened and condemn the actions.
“We know we’re preaching to the choir most times but it doesn’t matter,” Jose said. “When things like this happen, it affects everybody. We do this every single time. Whether it’s a hate crime or not, it’s something that’s an offense to the community and needs to be addressed.”
Director Kern is seen as family to many ISNU members, which is why the CSDS staff were the first to hear ISNU had received a hate message on their Facebook page from Patrick Keogan, a resident of Massachusetts. The picture read “Burn your local mosque” with flames in the background. When asked why, he called Muslims “vile subhumans” and said Islam “was not compatible with civilized society.”
“Hatred and bigotry and violence in all its manifestations are not acceptable,” Kern said in response. “Our center exists to promote diversity, inclusion and pluralism. As a vital arm of the University, the [CSDS] seeks to provide safe, hospitable space for students to explore their spiritual identities.”
Students were told by CSDS to go to NUPD and file a report, which they did and Northeastern police began investigating according to ISNU President Sarah Elbarki.
The Center for American-Islamic Relations—Massachusetts (CAIR—MA) also has its solutions, one of the most important is greater Muslim civic engagement, said Executive Director John Robbins.
“In response to the Ben Carson comment (about Muslims not being able to be president of the United States) … we have a pledge to get 20,000 registered voters to the next election,” Robbins said. “We want to show that Muslims are a vital part in American society.”
Although there is no panacea for hatred, a litany of possible approaches to combating Islamophobia gives hope for a brighter day. The laughter bouncing from walls of the John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute was full and effulgent. Interfaith events like these make Robbins optimistic that things will get better.
“Hate is a long range weapon. It doesn’t work close up. We find out when people know a Muslim personally their approval rating of Islam goes up 75 percent,” Robbins said. “Putting a human face to Islam or Muslims, for me that’s the future. That’s Islam in the next 10 years.”
Photo by Scotty Schenck