Yale Muslims work to open dialogue

call_the_NYPD
Photo by Facebook.

This past Tuesday, standing on Cross Campus, Mostafa Al-Alusi ’13 held up a sign that read “I’m a Muslim” while another student snapped a photo that would soon be posted to Facebook as part of an online campaign.

Al-Alusi was one of 116 participants in the “Call the NYPD Campaign,” a student-organized response to news released Feb. 18 that the New York Police Department had monitored the activities of Yale’s Muslim Student Association. A student had pitched the idea for the photo campaign at a Muslim Students Association meeting the week before and recruited a group of both Muslim and non-Muslim students to execute the campaign in protest of racial and religious profiling.

“Given the news from the NYPD, I feel targeted and vulnerable,” Faisal Hamid ’13, who serves as Vice President of Yale’s Muslim Student Association and also participated in the campaign, told the News on Tuesday evening.

In a Feb. 20 email to the Yale community, University President Richard Levin had asserted Yale’s opposition to the NYPD’s actions, and Hamid said he and other MSA leaders hope to “capitalize” on the administration’s support. Levin’s announcement provided an opportunity for the MSA to re-open what they now view as necessary dialogue on campus about being Muslim at Yale, Hamid said.

STUDENT REACTION

The week before the news broke, the MSA and the Chaplain’s Office hosted their annual Muslim Awareness Week, designed to help Non-Muslim Yalies better understand the Islamic faith. While Muslim Yalies said they felt shaken when they learned about the NYPD’s actions, seven interviewed said they still feel welcome in Yale’s environment.

Yale’s Muslim community is made up of between 200 and 300 students from both domestic and international backgrounds, said Omer Bajwa, Yale’s coordinator for Muslim Life. Bajwa said that the chaplain’s office, in conjunction with Yale’s Muslim Students Association, hosts Friday prayer sessions, weekly religious dinners educational programming and pastoral counseling.

“Being a Muslim at Yale hasn’t made my experiences any different from any other student’s,” Sana Samnani ‘12 said. “In many ways, I have felt empowered and supported by the Yale Muslim community.”

Samnani said she was attracted to Yale’s Muslim community because she knew she shared a common background with other members. Participating has helped her better understand her religion, she added.

When news broke that the New York Police Department had conducted surveillance on the Yale Muslim Student Association, all seven students interviewed said they were caught off guard by the revelation.

“My gut reaction was to wonder, to myself and to others, why the NYPD felt a need to investigate Muslim students,” Samnani said. “Obviously, we found out very soon that there was no real reason, other than the fact that we are Muslims.”

Bajwa said many students told him the news confirmed their suspicions about dubious law enforcement practices regarding surveillance of Muslims nationwide. Still, he said, they were shocked by the “infiltration on college campuses.”

Students said Levin’s swift and firm response, condemning the NYPD’s monitoring of the MSA, affirmed their confidence in the University.

Al-Alusi, MSA president, said administrators were in contact with the MSA immediately, and students met with University Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer, whose office oversees the Chaplain’s Office and security on campus, on Monday night.

Al-Alusi said the news shook his faith that academic institutions are places where students can freely express their ideas, but he added that the administration’s response cleared that fear for him.

“When the administration came to our defense, it was a lot better,” he said. “We realized that Yale had nothing to do with it, that Yale was taking a stance against it.”

TAKING A STAND

But Hamid said he believes there is still misinformation concerning Islam on campus and he thinks Muslim students on campus should be more vocal about their identity so that other students can approach them with questions.

“We’re being targeted by this large group,” Hamid said. “I feel vulnerable because although we spoke with Yale administration and they’ve been very supportive, there’s only so much that they can do.”

Bajwa said that increased discussion about Islam both on campus and nationwide has prompted some students to approach him about Islamophobic comments they have heard on campus. While Bajwa said he does not think these comments are characteristic of all Yalies, he said he believes heightened conversation has revealed latent attitudes of Islamophobia as well as a degree of cultural ignorance.

“It’s a much more subtle thing,” Al-Alusi said. “People who wouldn’t consider themselves Islamophobes, who have a very academic and sterilized way of talking about it, hold underlying assumptions without knowing anything that reveal the mindset with which they are approaching Islam.”

William Redden ’14, chair of Yale’s Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he feels students on campus had grown too accustomed to infringements on civil liberties, adding that there is room for further action.

Samnani said while she is heartened by the support expressed across campus and beyond the Yale community, she is concerned by the way some people have dismissed the monitoring as justifiable.

“There seems to be a sentiment among some students that profiling or monitoring Muslim student groups is justified in the name of national security,” Samnani said. “At this point, it’s a process trying to educate these people and raise awareness that singling out an entire group, for any purpose, without cause is completely unjustifiable and un-American.”

Al-Alusi and Bajwa both said they hope to combat stereotyping by continuing to educate students about Islam and Muslim culture through events such as Islamic Awareness week and panel discussions. Bajwa said even at an elite institution, educational outreach is crucial and that he and the MSA will continue working to counter the abundance of misinformation about Islam.

On Cross Campus last Tuesday, Muslim students did not stand alone. Maddy Yozwiak ’14, who attended an open meeting of the MSA and decided to help plan the MSA’s “Call the NYPD” photo campaign, identifies as Catholic. Yozwiak said the campaign was intended to be a visual and funny demonstration of “broader support” for the issues at stake.

“The thing that we were concerned about was that the issue was being cast in too much of a religious light, but it needed to be about civil rights,” Yozwiak said, later adding that the issues raised by the NYPD surveillance were not specific to Muslims but could apply to any student.

Isaac Wasserman ’14, who also participated in the campaign, agreed the issue tied into a broader conversation about free speech.

“There is never any justification for saying you belong to a certain group and you therefore must act a certain way,” he said.

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