In November 2016, during the 2016 presidential election campaign, Muslim Americans and the mosques in which they worshipped were victims to dozens of attacks, followed by Islamophobic rhetoric from then-Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson and Donald Trump. These events helped ignite a firestorm of Islamophobic rhetoric nationwide, leading to the formation of the Islamophobia Working Group on the University of Michigan campus.
On Thursday, the Islamophobia Working Group celebrated their second anniversary with the event, “Restructuring Academia and Student Life” at the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery. Prof. Evelyn Alsultany, director of the Arab and Muslim American Studies Program, mediated the event.
The same harmful rhetoric affected the University’s campus, Alsultany noted. She recounted the experience of LSA senior Jad Elharake, a panelist at the event, who in 2015 sent an email to the University’s administration bringing attention to attacks against Arab students on campus.
“Jad Elharake … mentioned in the email that someone had posted comments on the Yemeni Students’ Association account that associated them with ISIS,” she said.
The Islamophobia Working Group was soon founded in response to Islamophobic attacks like these, and was constructed by students, faculty and staff hoping to improve the climate on campus.
The IWG advocates for all students affected by Islamophobia — most of the panelists focused on issues faced by predominantly Arab students.
Alsultany then shifted the event to a panel of four current and former members of the Islamophobia Working Group. Elharake began by discussing recent efforts by the #WeExist campaign to implement a box for Middle Eastern and North African students on University demographic surveys.
University census surveys currently lack a box to indicate that a student, faculty or staff member is of Middle Eastern or North African descent, and current U.S. census surveys lack the same box. Without the box, Elharake pointed out, appropriate data pertaining to the Arab community is impossible to obtain.
“The idea of #WeExist is that we did not exist before,” he said.
On Feb. 21, Elharake noted, CSG passed a resolution in support of the creation of an ME/NA checkbox on University surveys for students. Now efforts have turned to implementation, as the state of Michigan still lacks a checkbox for people of Middle Eastern and North African descent, and extending the same recognition to faculty and staff.
The next speaker, Pharmacy graduate student Ibtihal Makki, discussed the textbook “Al-Kitaab,” used in the University’s Arabic program. Makki recalled her time in Arabic 101, and how she was uncomfortable with how the textbook presented Arab culture.
“The first word you learn is ‘United Nations,’ before you learn how to say ‘house,’” she said. “At first I didn’t think much of it … But then we learned ‘army,’ ‘army general’ and ‘territories,’ words that were political and militarized.”
Makki emphasized while LSA student government passed a resolution calling for a review of the textbook, the Arabic program stressed it would be too difficult to remove the textbook from the curriculum, as it has been ingrained into Arabic curriculums globally. Makki then discussed her efforts to raise awareness of Al-Kitaab’s deficiencies, talking to professors from across the U.S. in Washington, D.C. and serving on a committee to find replacements for the textbook.
Next, Engineering sophomore Ali Aboubih discussed the importance of increasing the number of reflection rooms on campus. Aboubih noted how efforts to create a new campus reflection room in Haven Hall succeeded after students gathered advocating the one that had been near the Fishbowl was insufficient, as students felt it lacked privacy.
LSA senior Haleemah Aqel then highlighted many of the concerns Arab students have faced on campus over the past couple of years. Aqel notably discussed how in her freshman year, the University decided to have a viewing of the movie “American Sniper,” which many felt inaccurately depicted Arabs. Following backlash from the community, the University decided to show another movie. In response, Jim Harbaugh, head coach of the University of Michigan football team, announced he would be showing the movie to the football team.
The University later reversed the decision and continued with the screening. In the coming years, Aqel noted, Islamophobic phrases were written throughout the Diag, and it became clear action needed to be taken, and Aqel became inspired watching students gather to protest the anti-Islamic sentiment on campus.
“That’s what started the Islamophobia Working Group,” she said. “But for a group to be set up like this and to be there when something comes up is, I think, very unique.”
A question and answer session followed the conclusion of the panel. When a woman in the audience asked Elharake what he thought of a majority of elderly Arabs wanting to identify as solely white, Elharake said that was fine.
“What's amazing about the surveys is that they are voluntary,” he said. “If they identify as white then they identify as white. I don’t think it’s another person’s place to tell another person how they should identify.”
After listening to the panel, LSA junior Hassan Faraj stressed the importance of the ME/NA box.
“The ME/NA box … Legitimizes our presence here at this school … And at all the University of Michigan campuses,” Faraj said.