Not many Yalies were laughing at the posters, but not many gave them a second look, either. Plastering the campus, the anonymously posted images depicted the Prophet Muhammad in caricature, sword in one hand and severed head in the other. For Altaf Saadi ’08, the posters she saw as she left Spanish class on Nov. 15 wreaked havoc on the myth of Yale’s patented atmosphere of amity and acceptance. Besides glaringly mischaracterizing the benevolent and tolerant Prophet, Saadi said, the posters shattered the ideal of open-minded and dialogue-driven Yalies. Idyllic Yale instantly transmuted into intolerant Yale, and it was impossible for Saadi to avoid grappling with very painful questions: Who put these up? Do I know these people? Do I count them among my friends? And what must they think of me? Confronting the implications of the posters, Saadi said, was “unbelievably frightening.”
More frightening still was the student body’s collective unawareness of the problem. Most Yalies think campus bigotry is a non-issue, Saadi said. “There is a mismatch between what students perceive to be the sentiment [towards diversity] and what the sentiment actually is,” she said. “I want people to know it’s an issue, and then we can work to resolve it.”
“Working to resolve” is a fixture of Saadi’s ethos. At the tender age of nine, when her family left Iran for Toronto, Saadi was thrust headfirst into the immigrant experience. With the ancillary assistance of television gems like “Gargoyles” and “Power Rangers,” she managed to learn English. Ten years later, Saadi is President of the Muslim Student Association and co-chair of Jews and Muslims, active in the Coalition for Campus Unity and in the Asian American Students Alliance, involved with the Journal of Human Rights and the Social Justice Network. But her involvement in this panoply of social advocacy groups is not just plumping her CV. For instance, Saadi helped organize the Open Forum on Hate Speech, which engaged 100 students in progressive dialogue responding to the posters and other incidents of defamation. “People spoke out, which was wonderful,” Saadi said. “But that meeting cemented in my mind the mismatch … some people just don’t believe that there’s hatred here.”
It was previous exposure to hatred that compelled Saadi’s active leadership. 9/11 spurred a proliferation of discussions about tolerance; unfortunately, many of these discussions were irrelevant. “In this country, there is a lot of talk of diversity, but very little talk of respect for diversity,” Saadi said. She set for herself a lofty aspiration: “I need to be that voice, to be able to speak out about the misrepresentation of Muslims, globally and consistently.”
Saadi’s focus is on using campus groups’ shared struggle to catalyze change. Her peers say Saadi’s natural leadership skills help her to find this common ground. “The kind of respect and admiration that Altaf commands stems from more than just her authority; she earns it as a friend,” MSA member Fatima Ghani ’09 said.
Saadi sees plenty of work to do in the future. She perceives a slide, on-campus and elsewhere, toward intolerance, and the situation is exacerbated by collective ignorance of the trend. But each discussion she engages in, each freshman who attends the diversity workshops she persuaded the administration to implement, and each event she sponsors represents another step toward reversing this trend, Saadi hopes. “That’s how I fit into the larger scheme of things — connecting all the dots,” she said.