If American universities ignore attacks on Muslim students, who will defend them?

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Originally published on Mondoweiss on November 22, 2016.


Strikingly, despite the fact that just weeks ago Muslim students and those advocating for Palestinian civil rights on this campus were targeted by an outside hate group, anti-Muslim or anti-Middle Eastern bigotry was nowhere to be found in the statement.

The situation has gotten so bad that an outside civil rights group has even demanded the University take steps to protect student activists. And yet, the survey showed no concern for documenting, addressing, or stopping them, instead rendering these concerns completely invisible.

The most recent incident occurred just last month, when an anti-Muslim hate group put posters up on 10 campuses across the country – including University of Chicago – listing the names and affiliations of more than 100 students and faculty. The targets were primarily Muslim, and the posters labeled them anti-Semites, “Jew haters,” and sympathizers with the militant group Hamas. Some even featured black-and-white cartoons that accentuated the dark features of those targeted, a tactic eerily reminiscent of anti-Semitic caricatures.

My name was one of those on the list.

Posters on University of Chicago campus

I was horrified when I awoke that morning to find a poster with my name on it below the words “#JewHatred” flyered all over campus. A chill went down my spine as I realized hundreds of students had likely already seen the poster slandering me and more than a dozen other students.

Even worse was the fact that the posters carried a link to Canary Mission, a website which is composed of a blacklist of individuals active in groups promoting Palestinian human rights and has been slammed as “McCarthyist” by more than 1,000 university faculty from across the country. It is run by an anonymous, shadowy organization that refuses to identify itself. It includes hundreds of profiles of people with pictures and statements beside accusations of anti-Semitism and Islamic extremism. Among those listed are professors, faculty, and students from universities across the country.

Since the website went up, I have been harassed on a regular basis by tweets claiming that I hate Jews, retweeted by dozens of people along with hateful messages. But the day the posters went up on campus was the first time this cyber bullying and harassment hunted me down in real life.

Some universities – notably UCLA – have released statements condemning the group, which is the second campaign by the Horowitz center this year. The Anti-Defamation league, an organization committed to fighting anti-Semitism, even denounced the campaign as “hateful.”

The University’s response, comparatively, was muted. A University spokeswoman at the time described the flyers as “defamatory and inconsistent with our values and policies.” Though, in meetings with administration officials, students targeted by the poster were offered sympathy but little more. After reviewing camera footage, we were told, the university was unable to identify those responsible. And a statement to all students condemning anti-Muslim bigotry on campus was deemed out of the question.

But the posters were not put up by unknown assailants. They bore the logo of the “David Horowitz Freedom Center,” an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center labels “a driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black movements” and the “premier financier of radical anti-Muslim extremism” in the United States today. Horowitz himself has called Islam a “religion which preaches war and violence and hate” and Obama an “evil man,” while he deems Black Lives Matter a “racist hate group.”

The posters substantiated their allegations of “anti-Semitism” by claiming those named were involved with Muslim Student Associations (MSA) and/or Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), while others were labeled as being linked to “BDS.”

The idea that being in any of these organizations is proof of anti-Semitism is patently absurd.

The Muslim Student Association is a religious organization that serves Muslim students – like Hillel serves Jews or Christian clubs serve Christians. SJP, meanwhile, is a club that advocates for an end to Israeli human rights abuses of Palestinians through nonviolent means such as boycotting companies that profit from the Israeli occupation.

None of this constitutes proof of “Jew hatred” or promoting the “genocide” of the Jewish people. And yet there were the names strewn on posters across campus.

What is clear is that these students were targeted primarily for being Muslim or for being involved in causes that advocate for Muslims.

SJP, for example, is not a religious organization, and there are many Palestinian Christians beside the Muslim majority. Despite this, right-wing supporters of Israel have learned in the last few decades that slandering all Palestinians as Muslim extremists is an effective way to silence criticism of Israeli abuses of human rights.

And, unfortunately, it’s working.

The failure of the University of Chicago – and other universities like it – to vocally defend the rights of its students to free speech, political activism, and to live in an environment free of racial and religious hatred is particularly disconcerting given the wave of Islamophobia that has overtaken the country in the last year, particularly in light of Donald Trump’s electoral victory.

Trump’s campaign was predicated on defaming Muslims and threatening those who use their free speech in ways he disliked. He has revived the idea of forcing Muslim-Americans to register – raising the specter of internment camps – and called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, beside defaming, attacking, and slandering those of many political stripes who have dared to stand up to his bullying and bigotry against African-Americans, women, Mexican-Americans, the disabled, and many others.

Two weeks after taking office, he is now appointing men who have long histories in the white supremacist movement to power, including Steve Bannon, as well as people like Frank Gaffney, who have been described as “Islamophobic conspiracy theorists.”

Those being appointed to the White House are united not only by their hatred of Muslim-Americans but also by their targeting of Muslim-American political groups.

They have repeatedly slandered Muslim civil rights groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations as connected to terrorism and Hamas – just like David Horowitz did against MSA and SJP on campuses. This is not an accident, but, is instead part of a broader attack on Muslim-American rights under the cover of targeting terrorism and protecting national security.

This is not the first time SJP or MSA members on our campus have been targeted; just last year SJP was subject to a postering campaign accusing the organization of standing for “Stabbing Jews for Peace,” which led to a wave of online harassment against the group and its members. In another incident, leaked emails from a fraternity showed a pattern of anti-Muslim hate speech.

In this climate, one would expect anti-Muslim bigotry and silencing of students involved in promotion of Palestinian human rights through Islamophobic attacks to be taken seriously, especially when discussing the implications of a campus climate survey. One would expect universities to be vigorously condemning the creation of blacklists targeting their students and faculty for being involved politically and to be fighting to prevent hate groups from using their campuses as platforms to silence dissent.

If universities refuse to protect their students from attacks by hate groups in this climate, who will?

When will anti-Muslim bigotry be considered important enough for the University of Chicago to intervene?