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Muslim students take on Islamophobia: Next protest movement in the making?

Buoyed by both the Black Lives Matter movement and growing calls for safe spaces on campus, Muslim student groups across the country are pushing back against anti-Islamic sentiment. 

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    Members of the Boston College Muslim Students Association join members of the student body in a campus-wide walkout at the school's O'Neill Plaza on Nov. 12, 2015. The walkout was held in solidarity with students of color in Missouri, at Yale, and other universities across the US.
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Boston College junior Isra Hussain never wears her favorite sweatshirt in public anymore. With her last name printed in big red letters on the back, she says, it felt less like a proud declaration of identity than an unwelcome, if not dangerous, advertisement of her Muslim faith.

“I was wearing it one day in October, and I remember [Donald] Trump say something [negative] about Syrian refugees. And I thought, ‘I don’t really feel comfortable wearing this anymore,’ ” says Ms. Hussain, who grew up near Providence, R.I., the daughter of Pakistani immigrants.

Many Muslims in the US have responded similarly to rising anti-Islamic sentiment amid terror attacks here and abroad: hunker down, stay quiet, don’t draw attention. But the loss of her sweatshirt also is one of the things that inspired Hussain to stand up.

She is one of a growing number of Muslim students – buoyed by both the success of Black Lives Matter movement and increasingly vocal calls for safe spaces on campus – to take on Islamophobia.

“It’s not exactly, ‘Oh we gotta do this too,’ but it showed us that standing up for what you believe in is definitely something you shouldn’t be afraid of,” says Mehdi Ben-Ayed, a University of Missouri senior.

While it’s too early to characterize it as a national protest movement, Muslim students from coast to coast are joining in solidarity with minority activists protesting racism on campus. When it comes to the issue of Islamophobia, so far, the students seem to prefer education and outreach to full-scale demonstrations and calls for the ouster of professors or administration officials.

But on some US campuses, “Islam has been incorporated into the coalition that touches on Black Lives Matter and on immigrant rights,” says Hatem Bazian, a senior lecturer for the departments of Near Eastern and Ethnic Studies at the University of California in Berkeley. “In this sense, Islamophobia has been incorporated into that … upswing in college campus activism.”

That spirit of solidarity appears to drive the Muslim Student Organization (MSO) at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo. – arguably the heart of the Black Lives student movement. The MSO was one of many student groups that stood by minority students and the school’s football players when they held a widely-publicized strike in November to protest racism, says Mr. Ben-Ayed, the group’s public relations officer.

But the MSO also has launched its own efforts: holding yearly conferences, speaker symposiums, and events that encourage others to take part in ritual fasting. Members of the MSO have also started working concession stands at football games in an effort to be more visible to other students, Ben-Ayed says.

“We want to show we’re the same people. That’s how it is now,” he says. “There’s a burden of saying, ‘By the way guys, I’m on your side.’ It’s tough times to be a Muslim.”

'To be black and Muslim, it's like you have to choose'

Some also feel that the issues that link the black and Muslim communities – such as oppression and a sense of otherness – need to be further articulated.

“When people talk about racism and Islamophobia, it’s often two different things,” says Muna Mohamed, a freshman at Tufts University in Somerville, Mass. “To be black and Muslim, it’s like you have to choose which struggle you have to claim for a second.”

That sense of separation may partly be because some activists see religious discrimination as different from racism, some experts say.

“Islamophobia has been described as a form of cultural racism, not biological racism. And that matters. I think we are prone to react differently to prejudice when it targets a person’s skin color, sexual orientation, gender, or other traits that are deemed unalterable,” writes Nathan Lean, research director of Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative, a project that connects the study of Islamophobia with public awareness and discourse, in an e-mail. “But religion is more fixed than people imagine. It is not simply a set of beliefs that are detached from who we are as people, as much as it is an integral – and central – part of our identities.”

One open question is whether the social justice activists the Muslim students have supported will stand up with them for their faith.

“There are occasional demonstrations and campaigns that sprout in the wake of particularly egregious episodes of anti-Muslim prejudice, but I don’t get the sense that … this issue is as central or urgent in the minds of young people as other forms of prejudice are,” says Mr. Lean.

Candles form a peace sign on Boston College's O'Neill Plaza during a unity vigil sponsored by the school's Muslim Student Association on Nov. 16, 2015. The vigil commemorates victims of the suicide bombings in Baghdad and Beirut, the Paris terrorist attacks, and the 7.5-magnitude earthquake in South Asia.

At Boston College, the Muslim Students Association is working hard to change that. They sponsored a vigil for the victims of the Paris attacks, participated in campuswide antidiscrimination walkouts, and engaged in efforts to support Syrian refugees and suicide bombing victims. They’re planning an even more vigorous campaign for the spring, including a Wear a Hijab Day.

The renewed push is partly tied to broader antidiscrimination movements, Hussain says. “I feel like even if the name is ‘Black Lives Matter,’ it does project to people of all minority status. It speaks to all minorities having the same rights as other people,” Hussain says.

But there’s also a growing desire to address misconceptions about Islam, she notes.

“How can we make others understand Islam is a peaceful religion?” Hussain asks. “I think the best way of trying to get change is education, and that’s what Islam preaches, as well.”

'Ask a Muslim'

Across town at Roxbury Community College, the school’s Muslim Students Association hosted an “Ask a Muslim” event, encouraging students and faculty to ask a question about Islam in exchange for a pastry.

People posed questions about everything from the pillars of Islam to the Islamic State, says Latifa Ziyad, the group’s president.

“We had more communication that day than we did in the months and weeks before,” she says.

Though efforts to take on Islamophobia are on the rise on campus, some say they have yet to crystallize into a full-on movement.

“The reality is that Muslim students have not organized themselves to be activists the way black students have this past semester,” says Mark Brimhall-Vargas, Tufts’ chief diversity officer and associate provost. “We understand that the current wave of Islamophobia is antithetical to the values of our community. But we still need to engage the larger campus.”

Part of the reason is that the American Muslim population remains relatively small: The latest estimate from the Pew Research Center has the number at 3.3 million – about 1 percent of the nation’s total.

Also, Lean points out, the BLM movement comes after generations of civil rights efforts. “Just think about this: It’s been more than fifty years since the civil rights movement, and we’ve just come to accept the fact — through hashtag blitzes and social media memes — that black lives matter.”

Still, none of this means a broader anti-Islamophobia movement will never take shape, Lean notes.

“[C]ampus debates about race have increasingly become a communal cause. This bodes well for Muslim communities on campus and within the general community, who … need strong allies to stand with them in the storms that they face,” he writes. “The germ of these prejudices is quite similar, and ending any one of them requires combating all of them.”

Hussain, the Boston College student, says part of why she has become so active is because she wants to see the day when Muslims can once more feel safe in their own skin.

“Muslims are taking more caution these days because things can happen at any moment. What I would love to see is not having to take that extra caution, to just be able to be proud of our faith – and we are,” Hussain says. “But I hope we can be openly proud of it and not to see as many setbacks as we do.

“I’m hoping that one day, I’ll be able to wear my sweatshirt again.”

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