University Muslim community reacts to false shooter alert

Wednesday, March 20, 2019 - 4:10pm

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Design by Sherry Chen

Students awoke Friday morning to news of mass shootings in two mosques in New Zealand, killing 50. The next day, during a vigil to commemorate the lives lost in New Zealand, police officers ran into the crowd urging people to flee the Diag, where the vigil was being held. Shortly after, the University issued an emergency alert telling students to “run, hide, fight”, alleging that an active shooter was on campus. Though the situation was eventually resolved and confirmed to be a false alarm, many students spent over two hours in hiding from what they believed to be a lethal threat.

When Public Policy senior Zoha Qureshi, vice president of external affairs for the Muslim Students’ Association, first heard about the attacks in New Zealand, she felt “numb.” She did not want to read the stories or see the video circling the Internet. She suppressed the news and went to sleep, hoping it was not true. It was not until the next morning that Qureshi was forced to confront the reality of the tragedy.

“That’s when I started to feel like, ‘Oh my god. No. I can’t believe this is happening,’’” Qureshi said.

News of New Zealand shootings affected Qureshi more than any other story in what she sees as a constant influx of tragic news and gun violence plaguing her newsfeed.

According to Qureshi, this attack was more personal than the others.

“I just remember every time a mass shooting happens, I always worry like, ‘Oh my God. What will I do if it hits a community close to home?’” Qureshi said. “Every mass shooting is a terrible situation, right, but I was always just hoping it would of course never happen again but then never enter a mosque or never affect a community that’s close to me, but then it did.”

LSA junior Silan Fadlallah, student coordinator for the Islamophobia Working Group, echoed Qureshi’s sentiments. Fadlallah could not wrap her mind around how someone could be so hateful in the face of her community’s peace and hospitality.

“It really did get to me, and I did get emotional at one point because even though I’m not a super, super practicing Muslim, I do definitely consider myself spiritually Muslim,” Fadlallah said. “It was just difficult for me to really challenge myself to process the fact that Islamophobia is so, so real.”

***

After some initial grieving, both Qureshi and Fadlallah sprung into action to console the University Muslim community, also awash in fear and shock. Muslim Student Association organized a DPSS security presence for their upcoming Jumu’ah service, the same Friday prayer that had been disrupted by the attacks in New Zealand.

“I know after people heard about the fact that someone was able to enter a mosque and commit this atrocious crime during the Friday prayer at those mosques … a lot of people had expressed, ‘Oh, we need to have security at jumu’ah,’” Qureshi said.

IWG took it upon themselves to organize a vigil for those whose lives were lost during the attack. IWG Chair Samer Ali, director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, described the community’s cooperation.

“There were just so many people willing to do the heavy lifting and put their shoulder behind the wheel and just push,” Ali said.

MSA members banded with IWG volunteers to present an intersectional and inclusive experience for all those who were mourning in light of the New Zealand attacks. There were speakers scheduled from all walks of life, with various Muslim organizations, public officials and other allies, including a local Rabbi, planning to speak.

“That sense of belonging is really, really crucial to actually having inclusion and diversity,” Ali said. “When people have a voice, when they can actually have their piece, that’s when people feel like they actually belong. They’re not just in a diverse crowd, but they are a part of a diverse tapestry.”

Ali explained Islamophobia as a “byproduct of white supremacy,” just as anti-Black sentiment, homophobia or anti-Semitism would also be classified. All minority groups feel a conjoined sense of loss when one is targeted like the Muslim community was in New Zealand.

Ali used the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally that took place in Charlottesville, VA in early August, 2017 as an example. At the rally, protesters used two chants to express their purpose for gathering: “Jews will not replace us,” and, alternatively, “You will not replace us.”

“Who is the ‘you’ here?” Ali asked. “The you is all the other non-whites.”

Ali explained all xenophobic discrimination is intertwined. He said it exists because the white supremacist community fears the fact that it is fading into obsolescence after having held so much control over the world throughout all of history.

“I don’t see (Islamophobia) as targeting Muslims in particular,” Ali said. “It targets anyone and everyone who is not a supporter of white supremacy.”

Ali described the University as a hotbed for this kind of thought. For this reason, he fears it could be a target for white supremacists.

“U of M is an experiment in diversity,” Ali said. “It’s an experiment in people working … and learning together in coexistence.”

Ali recognizes the University and the greater state of Michigan’s history in white supremacy as the biggest, most dangerous Islamophobic threats to the campus community. He described University scientists’ work in eugenics, the study of racial hierarchy, that was conducted on this campus up until the middle of the twentieth century. Ali also pointed out the town of Howell, Michigan, which has a strong KKK presence, a mere half an hour from Ann Arbor.

“Inevitably, our campus is a part of this country and we’re not immune from all of the problems and challenges of our country and our world,” Ali said. “I worry about us being soft targets, because we do represent diversity. We represent this very fragile experiment in how to build a more inclusive, diverse, peaceful environment where people can learn from one another and can work with one another without these wedges of identity driving us apart.”

***

All of this was in the back of Ali’s mind as he and 200 other members of the campus community attended the vigil for New Zealand on Saturday afternoon on the Diag. Qureshi said the vigil started off successfully.

“I was really humbled and just in awe at the amount of people who were there, and I just remember thinking, ‘Wow. All of these people,’” Qureshi said. “There were so many people there who weren’t Muslim, and that warmed my heart just knowing that there’s people who care and wanted to pay their respects.”

After a few speeches and a collective prayer, the vigil was abruptly interrupted with a surge of panic, Qureshi recounted.

“I just see in my peripheral two police officers running, and they’re running and suddenly I hear, and I will never forget, them yelling, ‘move, move,’ really loud,” Qureshi said. “They’re making motions for people to move out of the way and move toward safety. I don’t even remember hearing anything else they said.”

Qureshi said her “panic mode” reaction soon turned into “fight mode,” neither of which was very conducive to memory retention of the event.

“I had no idea what was going on, but based on the way the police officers were acting, I was expecting something terrible,” Qureshi said.

Qureshi described seeing Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library and fumbling her way up the steps, over winter maintenance ropes and through the crowd of other students who were also headed toward the building. Ali was also at the vigil, standing on the steps of Hatcher and looking out across the crowd when police ran toward them. Ali described a resulting “stampede” up the steps.

Once inside the building, someone suggested they all move up, so they took to the stairs. Qureshi said it was a feat of physical strength that she likely would not have been able to complete without the moment’s added adrenaline. Many lost phones or left their backpacks. Their only goal was to follow the police instructions: move.

“The commands to ‘move’ called out, caused, I believe, a great deal of panic,” Ali said.

Ali said there was a distinct lack of information given to students inside the libraries. Ali said they did not know which buildings or which parts of a building were safe. Still, he observed many students banding together in the face of adversity and organizing unity and calmness.

“I noticed people helping each other,” Ali said. “I noticed people comforting each other. You could see fear, but you could also see cooperation and a great deal of love and care for one another.”

This support network began within the group of trapped students, but soon spread, through group chats and social media, to the entire community of University students.

“We arrived at the second floor, and I gave myself a moment to breathe, and then I see my friends aren’t there,” Qureshi said. “I start freaking out because a lot of my closest friends were there too and I was with them and now we’re all lost and we might be in immediate danger.”

Qureshi’s next task was to make contact with everyone she had any inkling may have been at the vigil to make sure they were safe. Fadlallah, who had not been at the vigil, was doing the same.

“It was really just making sure the people I knew were there were okay because I genuinely thought that could have been the last time I talked to any of them,” Fadlallah said.

Fadlallah was met with disbelief when she first heard about the active shooter alert. It immediately occurred to her the vigil’s Muslim presence had something to do with the attack.

“Right when my friend texted in the group chat and they said, ‘active shooter,’ I thought, ‘It’s because of the vigil,’” Fadlallah said. “That was literally one of the thoughts that came to my mind was that this person knew that there was this vigil happening for the Muslims that died in New Zealand and they were like, ‘I’m going to come get them too.’”

Ali was also mindful the demographics of the crowd at the vigil lended itself to a state of heightened vulnerability.

“As an organizer of an event like this, I am concerned about security,” Ali said. “We’re a target, of course because this is a bunch of Muslims and their allies. The possibility of a security threat of some sort was definitely on my mind.”

Fadlallah said because she does not wear hijab she does not often experience stark episodes of Islamophobia being on campus. Following New Zealand, though, she was conscious of her identity and the division it struck between her and other University students. She believes that is why she was so quick to connect it to the active shooter threat.

“I’ve heard enough of (the Islamophobic ignorance), and yeah, I’ve become numb to it, but when it came to this situation, the numbness kind of went away and it was like a raw: this is a fact, and this is definitely happening,” Fadlallah said. “I think it was just all of those comments that I’ve heard in the past kind of resurfacing, and it became very real to me.”

Qureshi said that in the heat of the moment, she paid no mind to her identity as a Muslim woman. It was not until she had time to analyze the situation that it became apparent how her identity played into the event.

“One of my friends who wears hijab pointed out that we needed to cover our hijabs because we’re a target,” Qureshi said. “That’s something I didn’t even consider in that moment. That was something that for the next few minutes after I was kind of just shook that I needed to have that extra level of security because of my Muslim identity.”

After a few hours, students were given the all-clear and escorted out of the library buildings by armed police officers. Qureshi said that seeing the police with their weapons “made it seem a lot more real and a lot more terrifying.” Even after their safety was assured, the afflicted students were still working to comprehend the gravity of their experience.

Both Qureshi and Fadlallah expressed frustration with the pace at which the University moved on from this traumatizing event.

“Everyone thought it was real up until we got the all clear,” Fadlallah said. “So for those two and a half, three hours, everyone thought they could die.”

An all-clear was not given until around 7:50 pm, nearly two and a half hours after reports began circulating an active shooter was on campus.

Fadlallah has observed a lot of insensitivity toward those people still in need of help. Qureshi pointed out just how unfair this is to the Muslim community in particular.

“The one thing that was a little frustrating for me coming out of this and walking around campus a couple of days later is that it’s hard, but I want the campus community to recognize that people went through a lot really traumatic experience on Saturday, especially compounded after the grief we felt Friday after New Zealand,” Qureshi said.

***

Qureshi, Fadlallah and Ali are all appreciative of the work the University has been doing to accommodate students and improve protocol following Saturday’s events. History professor Juan Cole, who teaches in Ali’s department, elected not to test on the material in his lecture on Monday.

“I had gotten messages from students that they just weren’t able to concentrate,” Cole said. “So I told them that I didn’t want to cancel the class, but I wanted it just to be informational that day. So I put the reading and lecture off the exam. That way, if they were having trouble concentrating, they wouldn’t be punished in any way for that.”

Cole teaches in Middle East studies and said many of his students are Muslim. He reasons the New Zealand shooting helped trigger the response to the incident on Saturday.  

Cole said he ultimately did not want his students’ mental health to suffer in order to salvage their academic standing.

“My own philosophy is that we’re here to learn, and grades and exams and all of those sorts of things are unfortunate necessities, but not the end all be all,” Cole said.

In addition to removing the material from the final exam, Cole joined many other professors on campus in incorporating an open dialogue regarding Saturday’s events to the beginning of his class this week. Qureshi, Fadlallah and Ali agree the University is making an effort, but to Qureshi and Fadlallah it does not feel like those sentiments are echoed across the campus, particularly in what has been said by other students.

“A lot of people, because it’s a false alarm now, are kind of being really insensitive, and they need to understand that there are so many people who are genuinely still very, very traumatized and they may be for the rest of their lives,” Fadlallah said.

MSA discussed cancelling their annual banquet that was scheduled for Sunday night, but they decided to go ahead with the event. Qureshi said MSA’s executive board was very happy with their decision and the banquet “couldn’t have come at a better time.”

“We eventually came to the decision that we need to have it because we need to show that one, we’re not going to let this hate crime, this Islamophobia, we’re not going to let our fears stop us from enjoying each other and our community and having a good time and two, I think just having each other’s support was exactly what we needed,” Qureshi said. “Seeing each other happier, in a lighter mood, having dinner together and laughing with each other, just that community and camaraderie was helpful for so many people.”

Only the affected students can decide when they are ready to move on and cope with their trauma, Qureshi said. She added that all the community can do is offer them avenues to exercise every emotion they’re undergoing.

“Our biggest role being on board is that we’re here for our community in any way possible,” Qureshi said.

Ali said it is too soon to know how these events will affect the state of Islamophobia at the University. This is because he has no idea what shape Islamophobia will take across the world in the coming years. Yet, Ali does not anticipate Islamophobia to subside.

“The threat of white supremacy is going to become more vicious in the years to come, especially in the West and Australia and New Zealand because these countries have a long long history of erasing non-white people,” Ali said.

Ali explained much of the white supremacist rhetoric overseas finds its basis in American reasoning. Ali identified American films and conservative American politics as being inflammatory and spreading content with Islamophobic undertones or sometimes even explicit Islamophobia. He fears what could fester in America under these influences and what could happen at the University as a result.

“We’re going to have many opportunities down the road: the next Islamophobic movie, the next Islamophobic speaker, the next Islamophobic event, and I don’t know how our campus is going to react because historically we as a country tend to minimize the erasure and suffering of non-white people,” Ali said. “We do that very, very well and I don’t know how our community here at U of M is going to stand up to that.”