On Feb. 10, three students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill were shot dead. While some believe the deaths of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were the result of a parking dispute, many see the killings as a hate crime. Around the world, people have called the events religiously-charged executions that exemplify the enormous stigma faced by Muslims in Western countries, especially the United States.
Penn history professor Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, a Muslim Iranian-American who attended UNC-Chapel Hill as a Morehead Scholar, comments:
“The murders, I believe, reflect a distrust of Muslims in certain quarters — a distrust that is at once reinforced by the heinous attacks of extremists speaking on behalf of the world’s Muslim community, but also a distrust perpetuated by the growing prejudice against Muslims in the West.”
According to Federal Bureau of Investigation reports, since 2002 annual hate crimes against Muslims have been nearly five times higher than their pre-9/11 rate. While these figures are most likely an undercount due to voluntary participation, it does show a disturbing trend.
Although one of the best estimates — a Pew report from 2011 — puts the United States’ Muslim population at just over 2.5 million, 0.8 percent of the total population, various institutions, including academic ones in the U.S., are reluctant to call Muslims a minority. Instead, the public often seems to prefer to see an expanding monolith. But in America, and on elite college campuses, a group facing global stigma and bigotry needs to be recognized as facing challenging circumstances. This is particularly true when facing issues of faculty representation and the visibility of upward mobility.
The hesitance of national news organizations to report on the deaths of innocents from a community they frequently label as extremists and terrorists reflects the United States’ unease with Muslims and Muslim Americans. Moreover, there is a problem when being Arab and Muslim is wrongly perpetuated as being equivalent and as part of the false “Islam is Terrorism” trope.
Arab and Muslim are different, and neither is synonymous with terrorism or extremism. These stereotypes fail to take into account the racial, ethnic and national diversity of the Muslim community, which extends from Kosovo to Nigeria to Indonesia.
While we should recognize the intersection of nationality and Islam, we must acknowledge their fundamental difference. As students, we need to demand that religious diversity and tolerance become requirements in larger discussions of academic inclusion.
Whenever a large group has come to America seeking opportunity, it has faced discrimination during its initial acclimation. It happened with the Irish Catholics in the 1800s and the Japanese Shinto/Buddhists in the 1900s, just to name a couple. In fact, no immigrant group in American history has escaped the eyes of racism. As global ideologies become more entrenched, issues arise with intricate overlaps, each deserving its unique in-depth discussions.
The University is not exempt from the lessons of the Chapel Hill tragedy. Penn, in many ways, resembles UNC.
Muslim students are certainly present at Penn and have played an active role in West Philadelphia. The Penn Muslim Students Association founded the Masjid Al Jamia on 43rd and Walnut, the largest mosque in Philadelphia, according to junior Majid Mubeen and MSA’s website. And MSA continues to hold a large annual fair for the West Philadelphia community.
But according to Kashani-Sabet, tensions exist at Penn regarding the degree of religiosity and what it means to be Muslim in the West. “There is a sense that you will be judged for being too Muslim, or not Muslim enough.”
We must make it abundantly clear that all lives matter. We must not bypass conversation on race and religion on campus and within our own community.
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