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Muslim Students in the Age of Trump

Trying to de-demonize their religion after years of harassment


Walking in Kenmore Square after returning from the Christmas break, Doaa ElTemtamy says, she passed an elderly man who, seeing her hijab, spat at her and told her to go back to her own country.

That country would be Florida.

The US-born-and-raised ElTemtamy (CAS’18, Questrom’18) says she and other Muslims have endured such indignities since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. But Donald Trump’s campaign and election touched off a jump in harassment of, and threats against, minorities, nationally and in Massachusetts, according to law enforcement and hate-group monitors. While recent numbers are hard to come by, the FBI reported 257 incidents of anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2015, a 67 percent increase from the previous year, in the most recent accounting available. The increase prompted the Massachusetts attorney general to set up a hotline (1-800-994-3228) for reporting incidents.

ElTemtamy, president of the Islamic Society of Boston University (ISBU), can personally attest to the problem. Last November, she recalls, as she strolled home from watching election returns at the Howard Thurman Center, passing motorists yelled similar comments.

“These are taunts that we’ve received our whole lives,” she says. “If we were to report each time that happened, it would be ridiculous,” which is one reason she and her peers tend not to report harassment incidents. But they’re not being passive.

With the Trump administration’s revised version of its temporary ban on immigration from six mainly Muslim nations, the ISBU is stepping up efforts to de-demonize its religion for non-Muslims. The group’s feature attraction this month is its annual Fast-A-Thon on March 19, which is open to the BU community; the details, which are still being arranged, will be posted on the group’s Facebook page. Fast-A-Thoners forego all but minimal eating from sunrise to sunset and then share a full meal.

The ISBU devoted the February edition of its monthly Unfiltered Talk series to Activism and Spirituality in the Age of Trump. The series started last fall to allow students, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, to discuss potentially uncomfortable topics in Islam, ElTemtamy says.

“A lot of Muslims are being put on the spot…asked questions about their religion. It’s pretty tough to answer questions on behalf of your entire religion, especially when there are multiple interpretations,” she says. She adds that non-Muslims have said to Muslim students, “‘To be honest, I came here thinking you guys were a bunch of terrorists.’ If you don’t know any Muslims, and all you see is the news, why wouldn’t you think that way?”

In 2015, campus Muslims, including (left to right) Sara Parvin-Nejad (CAS'15), Diana Abbas (CAS'18), and Amina Egal (CGS'17), made thank-you cards to BU facilities workers who helped students during a snowstorm.

In 2015, campus Muslims, among them Sara Parvin-Nejad (CAS’15) (from left), Diana Abbas (CAS’18), and Amina Egal (CGS’17), made thank-you cards to BU Facilities workers who helped students during a snowstorm.

The ISBU is contending with outside political waters lapping at the campus borders. Whereas Trump’s two predecessors took pains to distinguish between radicalized Islamic terrorists and the majority of peace-loving Muslims, the new administration “sometimes conflates terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State with largely nonviolent groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots and, at times, with the 1.7 billion Muslims around the world,” the New York Times reported recently. “In its more extreme forms, this view promotes conspiracies about government infiltration and the danger that Shariah, the legal code of Islam, may take over in the United States.”

Noman Khanani (SED’17), the ISBU’s chaplain, was no fan of Bush and Obama policies such as drone attacks, which have killed innocents in addition to terrorists. Yet, he says, those presidents were “respectful in the way they spoke of Muslims” and avoided generalizations about Islam.

“We know rhetoric has an impact on the way the public reacts, and that is what makes Muslims fear the general public giving in to this rhetoric and fear-mongering,” he says. “I’ve spoken to multiple students who have taken steps to avoid being alone in situations such as walking back late at night from the library.”

ElTemtamy says Muslim students have received heartwarming support from students of other faiths and from Marsh Chapel. Khanani agrees that the ISBU “has built numerous alliances with organizations across campus and has a strong relationship with much of the administration…to help counter Islamophobia.” While he’s the ISBU chaplain, he is not one of Marsh’s University chaplains. He would like to see at least a part-time Marsh chaplain to address the unique needs of Muslim students.

The Rev. Robert Hill, dean of Marsh Chapel, says the chaplain for international students ministers to Muslims and the devout of other world religions. While he’s interested in building on that “because of the timeliness, importance, and sensitivity of the needs of our Muslim students,” he says, a Marsh-affiliated chaplain would require some financial support from the Muslim community, as is the case with other denominations having University chaplains.

In the end, ElTemtamy says, she cares less about Trump and his supporters than about her God.

“Being the best person you can be—we’re not doing that, essentially, because Trump’s campaign is painting us out to be like a bunch of terrorists.…We’re doing that because that’s what our religion taught us to do.” Trump’s campaign, she says, deepened her religion, “made me closer to God, and made me lean on Him even more so.”

BU Resources for Reporting Harassment

A student who is being harassed has several options for reporting to authorities.

“Any student or staff member who feels threatened or harassed can always call” the Boston University Police Department at  617-353-2110, says its acting chief, Scott Paré, BU deputy director of public safety. He cites Massachusetts law, which defines criminal harassment as “willfully and maliciously engag[ing] in a knowing pattern of conduct or series of acts over a period of time directed at a specific person, which seriously alarms that person and would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress.”

BU’s complaint procedures for discrimination note: “Unlawful discrimination includes harassment based on an individual’s membership in any legally protected category.” The procedures note that BU bans discrimination based on several categories, including race, creed, religion, and ethnicity.

Students may initiate a harassment complaint by contacting the dean’s office at their BU school, the Dean of Students office, the University’s Equal Opportunity office, or for those living in dorms, Residence Life.

There are limits to what authorities can do in some cases. “I’m not aware of any way to address harassment from random people on the street who are not known, except to contact the BU police if there appears to be a danger or repetition of harassment by the same person,” says Kim Randall, executive director of the Equal Opportunity office.

The University can investigate if students are harassed by an identifiable BU affiliate, including employees of companies doing business with the University, Randall says. She encourages students to report such incidents to her office, the Dean of Students, BUPD, or Human Resources.

Even if authorities can’t identify harassers, Nigeria-born Eniola Anuoluwapo Soyemi (GRS’17) found some solace, after several racist taunts, in reporting the incidents to the Massachusetts attorney general’s hotline (1-800-994-3228) and having a sympathetic ear for her story. “They were extraordinarily helpful in my case,” she says, “and I would wholeheartedly encourage anyone with such experiences to contact them without hesitation.”

Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

4 Comments on Muslim Students in the Age of Trump

  • BUstudent on 03.16.2017 at 2:19 pm

    Lets be fair. According to the quoted statistic from FBI there was an increase in anti-muslim hate crimes from 2014 to 2015. Trump became president …in 2017. How come the title is not Muslim Students in the age of Obama? Or was there an article like that previously? If not, why not?
    We’ve also seen a spike of 89% in the police deaths from 2013 to 2014. Would it be also blamed on Trump who has been in the office for not even two months?
    Listen, Trump will have to answer for his numbers. He should not be off the hook. But assigning someone else’s numbers to him is immoral.

    • Frustrated Fellow Student on 03.19.2017 at 7:26 pm

      Yes, prejudice existed in America during and before Obama’s presidency; what an astute observation. The more relevant fact is that, in 2016, the Republican nominee was able to maintain the support of his base despite employing openly discriminatory rhetoric against Muslims and being subsequently endorsed by high-profile racists like David Duke and Richard Spencer. America saw overt hate speech in its most prominent race for public office and proceeded to legitimize and elect the candidate who espoused it. This article is about addressing students’ legitimate fears, not only of the American citizens whose prejudices have been undeniable but of their president who – at one point – incorporated plans for a Muslim registry in his platform. As for your comment about police deaths, you should probably leave the co-opting of tragedies as red herrings to professionals like Kellyanne Conway.

  • Richard on 03.17.2017 at 12:02 am

    I am not sure how valid these allegations are. I doubt random motorists on Commonwealth Avenue, of all places, would do that.

    • Jim in New Orleans on 03.17.2017 at 8:52 am

      So it’s your assertion that the young lady is lying? Talk about the validity of allegations!

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