ABBASI: Attempts by Hillel to combat Islamophobia is self-serving
Opinions Column: Midweek Crisis
Last January, Rutgers Hillel Executive Director Andrew Getraer came under fire for a series of leaked messages through Twitter that were published in an article on Alternet. “Islam is a huge problem,” he wrote. “But there are 1.5 billion Muslims ... They are not ALL the problem. I know a few — a FEW — devout Muslims who are normal, not hateful people.” He went on to explain this “huge problem” even further: “Let’s say 25 percent of Muslims are really Islamists … 25 percent of 1.5 billion is still 375 million radicals.” By Getraer’s estimates, 1 in 4 Muslims “really want jihad, (to) kill infidels, etc.” According to an article in The Daily Targum about this issue, “When asked if he regrets or would like to take back anything he retweeted or said in the Twitter messages, Getraer said everything he posted was factual.”
More than a year later, neither Rutgers Hillel nor Getraer himself have retracted or even apologized for slandering the Muslim community. In fact, the only public statement we heard from anyone involved in Rutgers Hillel was an op-ed that one student wrote shortly after this incident titled, “In defense of Andrew Getraer, Hillel director.”
Rather than apologize for Getraer’s inexcusable defamation of Muslims — which also included Muslim students on campus, though I’ll refrain from rewriting any more of that conversation — Rutgers Hillel stood by these statements and has carried on enjoying the continued support of its donors and some people from the University community, if the ongoing construction of its new building in the middle of College Avenue is any indication.
This is not just about demanding an apology for Getraer’s comments about Muslims. I want to address a specific pattern of hypocrisy that I’ve noticed.
A new program was launched last semester under Rutgers Hillel called “Ben Azzai: Social Justice Through a Jewish Lens,”and ironically enough, its theme for the last few months has been "Combatting Islamophobia." This initiative would be admirable if it was actually about addressing the marginalization of Muslims — but it’s not. It’s just an opportunity for Hillel to use Islamophobia to its own advantage by projecting an image of involvement in combating the issue, when in fact it has done little more than perpetuate it.
As a Muslim who is involved in my community on campus, I find it interesting that my Muslim peers and I had not even heard about this initiative until a few days ago. Not a single significant Muslim student organization on campus (the Muslim Student Association, the Ahlul Bayt Student Association, MuslimGirl, United Muslim Relief, etc.) was even asked to participate in any discussions or events related to the Ben Azzai program — not that it matters, seeing as Hillel has already burned those bridges.
In light of the current political climate, Islamophobia is becoming a popular issue to address, and with good reason. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, hate crimes against Muslims tripled in just one month in the wake of last year’s Paris attacks. Anti-Muslim sentiments have not been as strong as they are now since they were post-9/11. As a Muslim, it is heartening to know that fellow Americans are taking the threat of anti-Muslim sentiment so seriously. But what doesn’t go over so well is when the same institutions that are responsible for perpetuating Islamophobia attempt to jump on the bandwagon. It is not only disingenuous and exploitive, but also counterproductive. For Rutgers Hillel to ignore its own problematic discourse about Islam while simultaneously attempting to portray itself as an ally to Muslim-Americans under scrutiny does nothing but normalize hateful rhetoric.
What gives Rutgers Hillel the right to discuss the marginalization and oppression of Muslims without even including Muslims in that conversation? What gives Rutgers Hillel the right to speak about or on behalf of Muslims at all? The conversations that it does host — such as recent events with Brooke Goldstein and Meryl Frank about human rights in the Middle East — are not rooted in a sincere willingness to understand the major significance that conditions of war, occupation and colonial legacies have in the region. Rather, at best this is a display of a misinformed, paternalistic savior complex and at worst, a lazy regurgitation of the media tendency to demonize Muslim-majority countries (or as Goldstein referred to them, “Islamist regimes”) with little regard for any global or historical context.
We do not need Rutgers Hillel to publicly pretend to care about Islamophobia while it continues to stand by its own executive director’s hateful comments. If Hillel is not going to at the very least apologize for its own active endorsement of Islamophobia and confront the bigotry coming from its own house, I don’t see how the organization expects to make any progress at all when it comes to building bridges with my Muslim community.
Sabah Abbasi is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and public health with a minor in Arabic. She is the former opinions editor of The Daily Targum. Her column, “Midweek Crisis,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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