Idrees Syed & Mak Hussain | Muslim students insist on more support
Guest Column | An open letter to Penn President Amy Gutmann
February 22, 2012, 11:03 pm · Updated February 23, 2012, 11:06 pm·
Dear Penn President Amy Gutmann and University Officials,
As leaders of the Penn Muslim Students Association, in the past few days, we have dealt with the disturbing and saddening reports of surveillance of our organization by the NYPD. Even more disappointing, however, was the lack of a University response condemning the actions of the NYPD and expressing support for the Muslim Students Association at Penn and other targeted minority students on campus.
As a community of Muslims at Penn, we were disheartened by the lack of University public support for the Penn MSA. In the first statement posted by the University on its website, not a single mention of protecting students’ religious freedoms was mentioned, and even in the current version there is no mention of the vibrant role the Penn MSA plays in our campus community. An updated version of the statement, lacking Gutmann’s name, reads, “… the fact that students on our campus feel scrutinized simply because of their religious affiliation, race or national origin is a sad and troubling statement on our times.” No condemnation was made, but rather an acceptance of a troubling status quo. The ignorant culture of fear and suspicion around Muslims was simply accepted as a “statement on our times” by the University. But again, no condemnation was made. No specific support for the targeted students was given, replaced by vague claims about the value of all students. For our community, a feeling of isolation was unavoidable.
This is not the Penn we know and believe in. Penn’s admissions website reads, “Our diversity strengthens our foundation as a university and a community.” Both of us were attracted to Penn because of that diversity, and we have taken advantage of it throughout our time here. The MSA has sought out that diversity in our partnerships and collaborations, both within Penn and with the surrounding community. For example, our annual Family Fair unites many groups together to put on one of Penn’s largest events bringing the West Philadelphia community to campus.
We, as part of the Muslim community here at Penn, were expecting something more from the University. We were expecting to be assured as students that we are an integral part of the University. That our well-being mattered. That what the NYPD did was unequivocally wrong. We were surprised to learn that Yale University’s President, Richard C. Levin, did exactly what we had hoped Penn would do in a statement to all students, faculty, and staff. He writes, “I am writing to state, in the strongest possible terms, that police surveillance based on religion, nationality, or peacefully expressed political opinions is antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic community, and the United States.” He continues to express his and Yale’s full support for the MSA at Yale, “The Yale Muslim Students Association has been an important source of support for Yale students during a period when Muslims and Islam itself have too often been the target of thoughtless stereotyping, misplaced fear, and bigotry. Now, in the wake of these disturbing news reports, I want to assure the members of the Yale Muslim Students Association that they can count on the full support of Yale University.”
As students, we were disappointed that Penn took a different tone in its statement, writing, “The University cannot protect students from the harsh realities of the world we all live in.” We are led to ask: what is the function of a University that does not even express an intention to protect its students? Of an institution of higher education that does not strongly oppose challenges to the free thought and belief of its members? Of a community that does not stand up when its own are targeted and marginalized, but instead, furthers their isolation?
President Gutmann and University Officials, we are writing to ask you to show us this support. Show us that the University really cares about its students, especially minority groups, on campus. Show us that we can trust the principles this University stands for — diversity, freedom of thought and protection of rights — and condemn the NYPD’s acts and take clear action to support the Penn Muslim community and the Penn MSA in this matter.
Idrees Syed & Mak Hussain, both College juniors, are the vice president and president of the Penn Muslim Students Association. Their email addresses are firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.