Muslim Students Feel the Backlash - Rolling Stone
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Muslim Students Feel the Backlash

Attacks, racial slurs and a new climate of fear take over campuses

Islamic Students

It's the first day back for muslim students who attend Islamic schools. Most of them were closed all last week due to terrorist attacks. The Washington Islamic Center, Springfield, VA, September 17th, 2001

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post/Getty

A FEW DAYS AFTER the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Khuram Hussain decided to go out for a slice of pizza. Hussain, 25, teaches history at a progressive high school in Brooklyn. As he waited for his slice to come out of the oven, a clip of Osama bin Laden appeared on TV. Just then a woman walked in. She looked at the TV, then at Hussain, and screamed, “We should hang that guy by his balls. And kill all those people. All the fucking Arabs are alike!” Then she stormed out of the pizzeria and got into a car idling at the curb. The window came down, and she started again: “If I see an Arab right now, I’m going to kill him. Dead. Right now.” Later that night at a grocery store, a man approached Hussain and said, “Why don’t you buy a flag, so you can go home and burn it.” A few hundred miles to the north, Sultan Sindi, a Saudi Arabian student at Boston University, was on his way home from a fund-raiser held on behalf of the families of victims of the World Trade Center collapse when he was set upon and stabbed twice in the arm.

Attacks like this were, not surprisingly, a key topic of conversation at a Muslim Students Association conference, held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in early October. So completely has a climate of fear surrounded Arab students that the notion of a carefree night on the town has virtually disappeared for them. “What I want to know,” Numan Waheed, a grad student at MIT, says, “is why [Sindi] was even going out late at night.”

Almost immediately after the explosions, phone lines at Muslim advocacy groups lit up with urgent calls about bias attacks. The truly grotesque cases —– a murder in Arizona, a mosque rammed by a car in Ohio —– made the network news, but hundreds of less-violent incidents went unreported to law enforcement. By October 5th, about 360 people had phoned the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee with verifiable reports of criminal incidents, around fifty of which involved students; the civil-rights department at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest nonprofit Muslim advocacy group, received 800 calls.

Measuring the breadth of the backlash against the nation’s estimated 7 million Muslims —– 50,000 to 70,000 of them students –— is complicated by the fact that many people are too afraid to contact authorities. “In my estimation, the numbers we are working with are pretty low-ball,” says Arsalan Iftikhar, Midwest communications director for CAIR. Neither do they include incidents that, however nasty, don’t rise to the level of a crime. As a lawyer with ADC puts it, “If you’re talking about someone calling you a ‘camel jockey,’ then the number is in the tens of thousands.”

“It makes me sad more than angry,” Numan Waheed says. Like most of the 200 students who trekked to MIT to attend the gathering, Waheed had experienced a bizarre incident in the past few weeks. It wasn’t criminal, but it was deeply unsettling in the way it signaled the changed attitudes of post-September 11th America. “What’s changed is the way people look at me,” he says, shaking his head. “The first few days after it happened, I’m riding the subway and a businesswoman comes up to me on the platform and just stares at me for like fifteen seconds –— one of those hard stares that really says, ‘I fear you.’ When the train came, she didn’t get on, because I was getting on.”

Waheed’s story is hardly unique; many students with a Middle Eastern appearance recall the moment when they realized they now face unprecedented racism. For Altaf Husain, a Howard University grad student and president of the National Muslim Students Association, it was the e-mail threatening “total genocide in the Middle East,” one of many threats he received; for Orange Coast College student Mooath Saidi, it was the political-science professor who pointed at him during class and said, “You are a terrorist”; for Shahid Ahmed, a Columbia University grad student, it was the two burly New York firemen who threatened to kick his ass in an uptown bar.

“It’s like a microcosm of the world,” says Altaf Husain. “Outside college, it’s very unlikely that you’ll find an Iraqi or a Lebanese man living next-door to you, but in college he could be right down the hall, and the proximity creates tensions at times like this. We anticipate that as the attacks continue on Afghanistan, and as the anti-Americanism from there rises, any student from that country –— or who looks like he is –— will feel the burden.”

On many campuses, therefore, caution is the watchword of the day. Women who wear scarves have been advised to keep low profiles or travel in groups; campus security patrols have been beefed up to protect students en route to prayer; events concerning Middle East politics have been canceled rather than risk sending an unpatriotic message; and, most chillingly, Muslim students have been advised by faculty and student leaders not to discuss the situation at hand if it seems like doing so will inflame existing tensions. CAIR’s Iftikhar put it more bluntly: “When the first Americans die in Afghanistan, I fear this is going to explode.”

That may not be abstract paranoia. A recent poll published in the Wirthlin Report found that about one in three Americans agrees that, considering the blood already shed, the “attacks against Muslims in America are inappropriate but understandable.” Though this poll has not been widely publicized, the harsh reality it reflects is already familiar to many Muslim and Arab students. That reality may help explain why several hundred have withdrawn from American colleges and gone straight home.

* * *

IN THE DAYS after September 11th, Muslim leaders were on the phone to Washington, encouraging President Bush to condemn hate crimes. At the same time, they held press conferences announcing their support for an American military response. This public-relations double-teaming probably curtailed the swell of anti-Muslim sentiment here, but it projected a somewhat misleading image of unity.

Many of the students at the MSA conference did not support bombing Afghanistan, nor were they quick to agree that Osama bin Laden was the clear perpetrator of the terrorist attacks. A chain e-mail had been going around Muslim student circles that pointed the blame toward the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. Hania Wehbi, a Lebanese student at Boston College, remembers the first time she saw the conspiracy theories that began piling into her in box. “I thought it was interesting,” she says of the Mossad theory. “There must always be some hidden hand.” Four other Muslim students I spoke to would not dismiss that theory out of hand. One said, “The only reason I think it might be the Mossad is that they are the only people smart enough to pull this off.”

* * *

I‘M STANDING in the back of a classroom crowded with members of the Muslim Student Association —– young men and women of every race, testifying, by virtue of their skin tones, to Islam’s presence around the globe. Somebody is asking the guest lecturer, “Why do Americans think we hate them? How can we educate them that we love them?”

The professor of religion rambles his answer, mixing Koranic metaphors with policy analysis (“Islam is like a river with many streams. … Western colonialism began 150 years ago”), and the students are visibly unsatisfied with the reply. Throughout the day, they’ll continue to ask questions about how to maintain Muslim identity in a time of global panic over the religion – questions that don’t have easy answers. But the next questioner clarifies one aspect of the dilemma: A morose-looking guy with a three-day beard asks, “Can we, as Muslims in America, separate ourselves from the rest of the Muslim matrix around the world?”

“No,” replies the professor. “All Muslims are not classified by nationality, they are classified by faith. It is like we are one body. If one part of the body aches, then the whole body aches. If one part is oppressed, then everyone feels it.”

This answer left Khuram Hussain frustrated. “I was hoping that professor could give me some inspiration, some reason to try,” he says. “But he couldn’t.” Born in Pakistan, Hussain moved with his family when he was two years old to LaFargeville, a tiny town in upstate New York, near the Canadian border – “the kind of place where at two in the morning you’re sitting on an empty street staring at a blinking stoplight.”

He had what sounds like a normal American childhood. As an adolescent, Hussain listened to Nirvana rather than read his father’s Koran, but as he got older he became intrigued with Islam: “At first it was simply a pride thing. I was studying history in school and learning that back when Muslims had an empire, we had this incredible civilization –— and that made me feel more secure in myself.” By the time he went to college, he’d traded in his ripped Levi’s and leather jacket for more conservative attire, and he was praying five times a day – although he was careful not to become so dogmatic that he couldn’t enjoy a good movie, like Being John Malkovich. “It’s difficult for me to pinpoint now what part of me is Muslim and what part is American –— they just cross and meld into each other,” he says. “That’s the beauty of being a Muslim in America.”

* * *

A SECOND ATTACK occurred in the Harvard Square T station, just days before the conference. A female graduate student at Harvard who wears the traditional scarflike hijab was confronted by a pack of rowdy men. They tried to steal her hijab and taunted her until she broke down, crying, and ran for safety. If the stabbing of the Boston University student Sultan Sindi put men on notice, this one served as a warning to women. “It’s scary that it happened,” says Alisa Khan, an undergraduate at Harvard. “I guess I’m really naive.”

The normally vocal members of the Society of Arab Students at Harvard were so concerned about an anti-Arab backlash that they canceled an event planned for September 28th –— the anniversary of the Palestinian intifada. Student Wasim Quadir, vice president of the Harvard Islamic Society, says, “I felt as if my patriotism would be called into question if I harshly criticized American policy in the Middle East, especially with respect to Palestine.”

At campuses across the country, Palestinian activism has been re-evaluated. Altaf Husain says that students have really scaled back. They had anticipated re-creating conditions in Palestine by holding mock Israeli checkpoints on college campuses nationwide. “The environment was too emotionally charged for us to do that,” he says.

While there’s no way to measure the depth of the chill, many of the students at the Boston event felt the rash of bias incidents was making it hard, if not impossible, for them to share their views of Middle East affairs, even in classroom settings. They’re anxious not to be perceived as criticizing the American government or doing anything unpatriotic.

This hesitancy even extends to professional speakers, says Iftikhar, CAIR’s twenty-four-year-old spokesman. In September, he appeared as a talking head on dozens of TV shows, but he hasn’t felt free to completely speak his mind. That’s because he’s been forced to answer questions about bin Laden’s radical, fascistic Islamism, questions that he believes are racially motivated. “People weren’t asking Catholic priests to explain Timothy McVeigh,” he says bitterly. But the deeper reason for his reticence is simply fear. “You have to realize that everything we say is being closely monitored and watched,” he tells me, alluding to the FBI dragnet that has snared hundreds of innocent Muslim students for questioning. “Right now, there’s this sense of racial inequality. I think our equilibrium as a country has really been moved by the attacks, and this is just not the time or the place to say certain things.”

Iftikhar continues, “The best way to put this so you will understand is that right now a senator from my state has proposed legislation that forces Arabs and Muslims to carry special ID cards.” Later in our conversation, he mentions that he wishes the U.S. were pursuing bin Laden through the auspices of the United Nations. I ask him whether he thinks the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan is therefore a violation of international law. He replies, “I don’t think I can answer that without going off-the-record.”

In This Article: 9/11, Coverwall

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