December 23, 2015

University Combats Anti-Muslim Rhetoric On Multiple Fronts

Hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. have risen in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, and the anti-Muslim political rhetoric has persisted.

The nationwide conflict has reverberated in New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie called on the state to turn away Syrian refugees, including children, and a Rutgers-Eagleton poll early this month said that 45 percent of New Jersey residents do not want New Jersey open to refugees from Syria. Princeton University has not been immune to concerns about Islamophobia and offensive political rhetoric.

An editorial written by the campus organization Muslim Advocates for Social Justice and Individual Dignity (MASJID) in last week’s Daily Princetonian pointed out “xenophobic immigration policies, opportunity barriers, and numerous hate crimes” and called for “the university administration, faculty and students to recognize that we too are affected by the hate, violence, and mistrust being perpetrated toward Muslims and other marginalized communities across the United States.”

The editorial referred to the traditional American values of religious freedom and tolerance and to progress in the cause of civil rights and diversity in this country over the past century, but went on to decry that these “landmark ideals have been shockingly and discouragingly undermined in recent months and years by the Islamophobic rhetoric of the very people we expect to defend these ideals: potential elected officials.”

Many other student groups signed on to the editorial, in solidarity with the MASJID students. The concerns of MASJID were echoed last week across campus at the Princeton Theological Seminary, where students wrote a petition opposing anti-Muslim rhetoric (and specifically criticizing a call by Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. to allow arms on his campus in response to terrorist acts). Meanwhile, Princeton Theological Seminary President Craig Barnes joined more than 1600 seminary faculty and leaders throughout the ­country in issuing “An Appeal to Christians in the United States.”

The appeal from Christian clergy expressed “a growing alarm that our country is entering a very dangerous period in which some political leaders and some media are directly challenging our most fundamental Christian convictions.” It urged Christians to “resist stereotypes and pledge to work for laws and practices that honor the dignity of all people.”

Advocating a Christian response to refugees from Syria and elsewhere, the appeal claimed that “because of fear our politicians and too many in the media try to win our votes for themselves or their candidates by demonizing the refugee and immigrant” and warned not to “ignore the rich biblical injunctions to welcome the stranger.”

Director of the Muslim Life Program at Princeton, Chaplain Sohaib N. Sultan, stated that “students feel very safe and secure on campus and they feel that they can openly talk.” Elsewhere the situation is more problematic, he admitted. “The national dialogue and the environment that has been created, especially in California, affects deeply the psyche of Muslims and their sense of belonging and their sense of safety,” he said.

Mr. Sultan, who is also advisor to the Muslim Student Association, announced an initiative that the Muslim Life Program will be taking “to build bridges of understanding” and give the community an opportunity to learn more about the Muslim religion. January will be Open Jummah Month, with an invitation to students and community members to join in a weekly worship gathering on Fridays from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. at Princeton University’s Green Hall on Washington Road and William Street.

Also eager to build bridges, Farah Amjad, a senior at Princeton and founding member of MASJID, is working as part of a religiously diverse campus coalition to get visibility and support for the Syrian refugees. “There’s a great lack of knowledge about the situation and a lot of fear and suspicion,” she said, but she hopes to raise awareness on campus concerning the plight of refugees and the dangers of Islamophobia.

“The refugee crisis is bringing together groups that don’t get along on other issues,” Ms. Amjad said. MASJID held an Eid banquet in September, and, recently, in collaboration with the Center for Jewish Life and other campus programs, hosted a benefit concert to raise money for refugees.

Having spent the summer of 2014 before her junior year in Jordan working with Syrian refugees on a project supported by a $10,000 grant from Projects for Peace, the Princeton history major spoke from experience about the refugee crisis.

Ms. Amjad and her Princeton classmate Wardah Bari created their 2014 project, “Voices of the Future: Fostering Peace Between Refugee and Native Communities in Jordan,” to provide community outreach to Syrian refugees living in the Jordanian border town of Zarqa, specifically to help young Syrian refugees and Jordanian youth understand each others’ struggles and experiences.

“A big portion of our project was engaging the Jordanian community with the Syrian refugee population,” Ms. Bari explained.

“A lot of the work we did,” Ms. Amjad added, “was about community organizing. We weren’t just going in to work for an NGO; it was about bringing people together.”

Working with the children towards psychological rehabilitation and education, Ms. Bari and Ms. Amjad focused on general education, art, dialogue, and leadership. “Since they were kids,” Ms. Amjad said, “We wanted to give them a space where they could let go of themselves and have fun while at the same time receive an education.”

Ms. Bari worked with the U.S. State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration last summer and is writing her senior thesis on refugees and the responsibility of the international community.

Agreeing with Ms. Amjad and the Christian community on the need for greater understanding in this country, Ms. Bari stated, “People need education and understanding of history. The United States needs to reflect on what its values are. As a country built on immigrants and tolerance, we have a responsibility.”

Ms. Bari, whose family lives near San Bernardino, California, cited “a lot of anonymous hate towards Islam on social media,” with her family concerned about her younger brother and sister going to school the day after the San Bernardino terrorist attack and many women afraid to leave the house wearing the hijab head scarf.

“This is a big problem that’s not going away any time soon,” Ms. Bari said, adding that “those attitudes do exist on this campus, but more implicitly than overtly.”