Rabab Jafri: Recognize islamophobia on campus

Monday, February 1, 2016 - 9:16pm

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Monday, Jan. 25, students crowded the seats in the Pendleton Room to listen to students share their experiences with Islamophobia. The event was organized by a committee of Muslim students as well as the LSA-sponsored event “Sharing Stories, Building Allyhood: Student Voices Against Islamophobia.” This event seemed to finally be a step in the right direction — with great attendance in terms of demographics and size — because a safe space was created that allowed students affected by Islamophobia to share their stories without fear. One student was even able to lay claim to the story she had submitted anonymously to the group, thanking people for creating a space where she felt welcomed. After the first part of the event, in which students shared their stories, people broke up into groups to discuss what it means to act as an ally for Muslim students. This would have been more effective if there was more time for discussion and if there was more room capacity.

Regardless, this is the kind of action that the University should be taking in order to enhance Muslim student voices. I interviewed Prof. Evelyn Alsultany, director of Arab and Muslim American Studies, afterward, and she pointed out the effect of LSA organizing such an event, as opposed to a student group organizing one. She started by speaking to me about the University administration’s plan:

“I think that it’s yet to be seen in terms of ‘they have this plan for diversity, equity and inclusion, we’ll do our part by doing a report and then it’s really in their hands,’ ” Alsultany said. “I think a good sign right now is that this event was actually organized by the LSA undergraduate division, which says something. In the past it’s usually that students organize something or a mosque organizes something and it doesn’t draw a crowd like this, and I think having the support for LSA for this event was meaningful.”

The event demonstrated positive aspects that I hope will be carried through in future programs. With the help of LSA, the event was advertised better than any solely student-organized event, and done in collaboration with a group of students so that it did not feel isolated from the Muslim community. When the University organizes events with similar goals, such as the diversity summit events, they should try to use similar methods to welcome students of different backgrounds to bridge the gap and foster trust in the University.

I also talked to Nadia Aggour, a graduate student in the School of Social Work who is training with CAPS, about the effectiveness of the event. Aggour attended the event and offered a lending ear in case the event itself was triggering to students, which was comforting and mindful of the organizers. I asked Aggour what she thought about the effectiveness of the event and she, like Alsutany, said some of the departments are better at being attentive to the history of the institution’s awareness of the effect of sociopolitical events on students, but that other initiatives are just meant to appease students. She also commented on the effect of discrimination on student mental health: “I definitely think any form of discrimination or fear for safety affects mental health of students. Your body is put into a completely different response when it feels you are in danger.”

Recognizing Islamophobia on campus as an issue that genuinely affects students’ mental health is important. Mental health is often viewed as a separate issue that the University needs to tackle, but the intersectionalities between the minority and discrimination issues and mental health and assault were often not realized. Students at our university should not have to fight for their voices to be heard. This event also demonstrated the need for more diverse professors and faculty to be hired at the University, because their role in supporting students can be used for initiatives to improve campus climate.

The final portion of the event, where students worked together to talk about how to act as an ally, served as a reminder to all students and faculty that the problem does not stem from students that are affected by discrimination, but instead stems from people who act as aggressors and those who remain silent.

Rabab Jafri can be reached at rfjafri@umich.edu.