Rutgers Muslim Student Association hosts forum on Islamophobia
In high school, Taufeeq Ahamed wanted to create a tribute for the 2,996 of his countrymen that died on Sept. 11, 2001. His teacher assumed he was celebrating the event, and he was disciplined because he was a Muslim.
This was but one example of Islamophobia experienced by members of the Rutgers University Muslim Student Association, said Ahamed, the association's president and a School of Arts and Sciences junior.
To combat Islamophobia, the association held a forum on Feb. 4 at the Paul Robeson Cultural Center on Busch Campus, where its members could discuss their experiences and ways to combat anti-Muslim racism.
“It's painful that people use rhetoric that's based on the lowest common denominator, fear and bigotry in order to gain political points,” he said. “It means that my members are a little bit more paranoid, a little bit more worried that (Islamophobia) is becoming so widespread.”
Members of the association have reported numerous incidents of verbal harassment. Some have even reported instances that they were physically harassed, he said.
“We've grown up with this. We don't really know what it’s like to live in a world that’s not post 9/11, so those slurs, maybe that occasional attack ... may become the norm, and what we're trying to do on campus is try to encourage that you should never see these things as normal,” Ahamed said.
Many of these crimes are not reported to the proper authorities, he said. Some students feel that the harassment does not warrant a bias prevention report or police action.
The issues largely stem from the portrayal of Islam in the media and the resulting lack of knowledge about the religion, said Amjad Shaik, a School of Arts and Sciences junior.
“Unfortunately, Muslims in general don't get as much of an opportunity to voice their side of the story or to voice their opinions as much or as loudly as some of the others do,” he said.
Much of Islam’s coverage in the media exists as a result of extremist groups like Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State group, Ahamed said. For many Americans, that is their only points of contact with Islam.
Those who are visibly Muslim face the brunt of the hate, he said.
“Our sisters, the ones who wear hijabs, they definitely experience it a lot more,” Ahamed said. “A lot of them will come to me and tell me about the incidents that they face. I’ll encourage them to file bias reports (and) if they're very serious, involve the (Rutgers University Police Department).”
The hijab is a religious headdress used to protect the modesty of Muslim women, said Marwa Elgendy, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences sophomore and the association’s events coordinator.
Elgendy has worn the scarf for over 11 years and feels that the hijab protects her and forces members of both genders to respect her for her intellect instead of for her appearance.
“It’s made me feel a lot more protected in a sense. When I'm walking down the street, even though sometimes it might turn heads, after wearing it for so long and people have started getting used to it,” she said. “It’s more how I live my life instead of something that I have to do.”
Despite this, the scarf marks her and the other female Muslim students as potential targets after an attack by an extremist group. They worry about how the public will react and how that reaction will affect them as practitioners of Islam.
This hate, Shaik said, comes out of ignorance. To combat it, Muslims must seek to educate others about their religion to show them that they are not very different from other Americans.
To this end, the Muslim Student Association holds an annual event called “Islam Awareness Week.”
For a week in April, the association and other Muslim student groups, rent out a space near Brower Commons. Muslim students then educate the Rutgers community and the greater New Brunswick community about Islam.
The event is a part of the University’s efforts to make Rutgers a welcoming place for Muslim students, said Mujtaba Qureshi, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences senior and one of the association’s Vice Presidents.
The association is working to foster a close relationship with the RUPD. Last year, the association met with the chief of police to discuss Islam in the Rutgers community and held a cultural sensitivity workshop for some of the department’s detectives.
Within the last two years, the University has created prayer spaces for Muslim students on most of the school’s campuses.
“Every time something happens, our advisor, who's a student life dean … arranges a meeting and she'll bring the vice chancellor,” Qureshi said. “It’s nice to know that faculty cares, that the administration cares to reach out to us and be there for us.”
Nikita Biryukov is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies. He is an associate news editor for The Daily Targum. Follow him on Twitter @nikitabiryukov_ for more.