Ten years ago, Muslim students at the University did not feel at ease walking by themselves. Some even went home to their families to feel safer after the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent Islamophobic backlash.
Within 24 hours of the attacks, some Muslim students had received threatening e-mails. A death threat from “a Christian American,” for example, was sent to multiple Arab-American students. Other e-mails included threats like “your life will be a living hell” and “this is war,” then-LSA junior Brenda Abdelall, the external relations chair of the Arab Student Association, told The Michigan Daily at the time.
Because of the period of wavering acceptance on campus, members of the Muslim Students’ Association took it upon themselves to educate the community and spread awareness of the religion of Islam. As a result, the association and campus as a whole grew and moved past the brief time of intolerance.
On Sept. 13, 2001, the Defend Affirmative Action Party at the University and the University of California at Berkeley issued a joint statement calling for opposition to “xenophobia and national-chauvinist war hysteria in response to these attacks.”
Support for Muslim students grew following a vigil held the day after the attacks, Asad Tarsin, then-President of the Muslim Students’ Association, told the Daily at the time. Despite that support, Muslim students still did not feel “comfortable or proud when walking down the street,” he said.
Current Muslim Students’ Association President Eman Abdelhadi said she spoke with Tarsin about what it was like for Muslim students at the time and believes that the attacks served as a catalyst for the association to blossom into one of the largest student groups at the University. There are roughly 700 people on the association’s e-mail list this year and an average attendance of 300 to 400 people at MSA’s large events, according to Abdelhadi.
“It was not a fun time to be a Muslim student at Michigan, but really what you hear a lot in the MSA community is that that was sort of a turning point in MSA history,” she said. “People talk about that time like the golden years of MSA — this year when things happened and people were suddenly mobilized.
“Every activist sort of dreams of the ability to just get everyone together and do stuff, but it’s really sad when it happens because of a gigantic tragedy,” Abdelhadi added.
Before 9/11, MSA was mostly focused on the spiritual health of the community, Abdelhadi said. But after the attacks, she said the organization needed to initiate a dialogue with the rest of campus to distinguish true Islam from the radical extremism that shook members of their faith just as much as non-Muslims.
To do this, the association held multiple information sessions about Islam to educate people on what they claimed to be afraid of. On Sept. 27, 2001 the association held a joint teach-in with the School of Social Work. At the event, MSA members urged non-Muslim female students to wear a hijab the following day in an act of solidarity with their fellow students. Men and women who felt uncomfortable in headscarves were encouraged to wear white wristbands.
“If many, many women got together and put on the hijab, it would help diffuse the misplaced anger that’s being forced on anybody that might be considered Muslim,” Lisa Leven, one of the event organizers, said at the time.
Events like the teach-in and A Walk in My Shoes — a current MSA program that connects Muslim and non-Muslim students to explore each other’s perspectives — helped eradicate discrimination by familiarizing students with Islam, Abdelhadi said.
“You’re less likely to be phobic if you have a Muslim friend,” she said.