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Vol. V No. 6   ·   21 September 2001 


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In tragedy's aftermath
Few signs of campus prejudice, but students are warned

By Hope Green

In the days following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, whose prime suspects have been identified as Islamic fundamentalists, national media have daily reported rising numbers of hate crimes against Muslims in the United States. Pakistanis and Indians, as well as Arabs, have been among those wrongfully associated with the terrorists' cause. But at Boston University, where the student body represents several Middle Eastern countries, faculty and administrators say that cross-cultural understanding has generally prevailed over prejudice.

"We obviously won't tolerate any harassment of our students," says Jack Weldon, director of residence life, "and any incidents will be reported to the BU Police immediately. That's a message we are sending out to the resident assistants. We are asking them to be mindful."

His comments echo stern words from Allen Ward, director of the Student Activities Office.

"Prejudice is not what the learning community is about," he says. "We're very concerned about all of our students. We're concerned about those who have lost loved ones, friends, and relatives, we're concerned about lost alumni, and we're also concerned about students who may feel marginalized, threatened, or insecure at this time. We ask that any student who feels that way come forward and let us know. We're going to alert the proper authorities if any incidents occur."

Ward also urges these students to seek emotional support from the Counseling Center.

Many faculty members have reached out to students by sending them supportive e-mail messages and inviting them to impromptu discussion sessions, such as a meeting led by Farouk El-Baz, a research professor and the director of the GRS Center for Remote Sensing. He addressed about 20 Muslim students on September 18, including some from his classes and others who are the sons and daughters of colleagues.

"I said they should not feel scared because everybody in the country is concerned about what happened, and no one is going to target them specifically," El-Baz says. "I said people are going to say or do some things that are out of the ordinary, but that no one who is Muslim should react further in response. I said if anything happens, just let it be, but try to explain as clearly and as quietly as you can that the people who did this awful thing do not in any way represent Islam, just as religious extremists in the United States do not represent Christianity, and religious extremists in any tradition don't represent their whole religion.

"In reality," El-Baz says, "what the terrorists did was completely against the cardinal rules of Islam. Islam prohibits the taking of life and considers murder the most evil of all evils, because God brings life and only God can take life."

While administrators say no one has filed official reports of ethnic slurs against Muslim students at BU, stories of isolated incidents have been circulating. At a meeting of the Multifaith Peer Council, an interfaith discussion group, a student said she witnessed a Muslim woman leave a classroom in tears on September 11 after another classmate made a disparaging remark. But other students report hopeful signs. Justin Hvitfeldt (SED'02), a convert to Islam, was heartened by an exchange that occurred the same day while he was sitting in the George Sherman Union with his wife, who was wearing an Islamic head scarf.

"Someone came up to us and said, 'If anything has happened to you, I want to apologize,'" says Hvitfeldt, a CAS administrative coordinator. "Also, someone left a note in the Islamic prayer room [at the GSU], in support of Islamic students, and saying that if we had any problems, then this was someone we could turn to."

Yasmin Khayal (CAS'03), a member of the Arab Students Association, praised campus administrators and faculty for speaking out against prejudice.

"Everyone has been very supportive and very careful to tell people not to give in to stereotypes, and not to publicly condemn a whole group of people for the actions of a few," Khayal says, adding that she has been praying for the attack victims.

"These attacks are atrocious and horrible," she says. "Anyone who did this cannot call themselves a real Muslim, because it is against our religion to kill innocent people."

Greg Leonard, director of the International Students and Scholars Office (ISSO), says he will be sending out an e-mail message of support to all international students. Leonard says he has spoken with campus and city police and has heard of no anti-Muslim incidents at BU. As well as physical safety, he says, the ISSO is concerned with students' psychological well-being.

"We're not focusing in particular on our students from the Middle East," he says. "We're reaching out to all international students. Anyone who enters into a new culture has to figure out how things work, where their place is. And our new students who came here just late last month are hit with a double dose, because not only are they trying to find a comfortable place for themselves psychologically, but they are also hit by realizing that all of our places have been shaken here, and we're all trying to figure out what the new rules and guidelines are.

"I think it puts some of the international students who have been here for a number of years in the same situation they were in when they first got here," Leonard adds. "They're thinking, 'Uh-oh, things are different. How are they different?'"

Carol Allen, associate director of student services at the Center for English Language and Orientation Programs (CELOP), says she wants to help ensure that her students feel safe.

"I don't want the American public to think that everyone who comes here from abroad is a bad person," Allen says. "I think we have to keep ourselves open to the real advantages of international education."

In the wake of the terrorist attacks, Allen is trying to arrange for more contact between CELOP students, many of whom are Muslim, and the rest of the campus.

"I would like more of our students to have a conversation partner among the American students," she says. "It sounds simplistic, but I really think it's one student at a time, one relationship at a time."


21 September 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations