Muslim OSU students have felt effects of national policy
On Jan. 28, images of protesters holding homemade signs, packed shoulder-to-shoulder with tears streaking their faces flooded news outlets throughout the country.
These images of the detainment of refugees in airports, many of whom are Muslims, were the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s executive order. The Oregonian estimated that a crowd of 2000 packed the baggage claim area of the Portland International Airport to protest the detainment of Muslims.
Although the epicenter of these tensions lie in Washington D.C., the effects have reached the Oregon State University campus. In the wake of this, OSU Muslim students Safi Ahmad and Roa’a Albish have felt the sting of Islamophobia. And it is only getting worse, according to Ahmad.
“In the U.S. in general, well, now we’re not welcome,” Ahmad said. “After the travel ban that was imposed, the president has outright said that Muslims are not welcome here. They’re not given that opportunity anymore because of something that, I guess that, less than a percent of the Muslim population has been doing. I just don’t understand how it works.”
Ahmad is referring to the acts of terrorism committed by Islamic extremist groups such as the Islamic State. He said that the common misassociation between Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent has contributed to Islamophobia.
“You can be any religion, or no religion, to be from that area. It doesn’t have to be Islam,” Ahmad said. “And so that’s like a misconception that has led to the fear of Islamophobia, that all people who are brown-skinned must be Muslim. It means they must be on TV, doing all the ISIS propaganda, listening to it.”
Albish feels that the media often misrepresents her religion, and that this is a major cause of the intolerance she and others experience. She wishes that others would keep their minds open to the possibility that they are just students, like everyone else. Albish knows, however, that this is difficult when American news seems to scream just the opposite.
“If media, newspapers, news, everything around you is negative, how would you see reality?” Albish said.
Ahmad was born in Pakistan, though he lived in Dubai for most of his life. He has lived in the U.S. for three years. Like any other student, he studies, he cuts loose from time to time and he has his passions. Ahmad said that when these tensions really began to harden in Corvallis during the election, it was a bit of a shock to him.
“It went straight to the heart. I didn’t think it would come this close to me,” Ahmad said. “I didn’t think that I would be living in a time when I, my friends or I, would be getting this kind of judgement.”
Ahmad says that the tense political climate post-election has allowed people to react in a way that he can only see as “inhuman.” Similarly to Albish, he believes that people’s negative perceptions of Islam have been taken from external sources. In Ahmad’s opinion, some government officials are basing policy on xenophobia, causing other others to voice racist views.
“(Others) know, ‘Oh, OK, my president’s doing it, so why should I be afraid not to do it?’ If he does it, and he gets away with it, that means that I have the power to do so as well.” Ahmad said. “There are people and there are communities that are welcoming, but I mean, you still have that little fear wherever you go that there might be someone who’s not welcoming.”
Albish put it more bluntly.
“I can see that more racism is occurring,” Albish said.
Albish is originally from Saudi Arabia, but has lived in the United States for over five years. She says that, while she has never felt unwelcome in that time, she has begun to feel trepidation regarding the passing of new laws and their potential implications.
She said that, from what she’s seen, the community does not feel safe, even among Muslims who are American citizens. She also mentioned that, while she’s heard horror stories from others, most of her experiences have been largely benign.
“People will come up to me and say, ‘What is Islam? What is it about? And what is happening to terrorism?’ And these kinds of things,” Albish said. “The most important thing is the truth. It’s not about terrorism. It’s not about war. It’s not about contradiction. It’s about peace and love. We all aim for peace and love.”
Dr. Jonathan Katz, an OSU professor specializing in the religions and social structure of the Middle East and the Islamic world, feels that Islamophobia is an issue on campus. He said that the School of History, Philosophy and Religion hosted a solidarity luncheon in support of Muslim students shortly after the election, and that many of the students felt frightened. Some even reported that disparaging comments had been yelled at them from cars while walking to class.
“I can only imagine that it’s a disheartening experience,” Katz said. “People are feeling very frightened, and very insecure about their status. We had this luncheon, a month or two ago, one person was saying, ‘I came as an undergraduate student to the United States, and now I have American citizenship and it’s what I always wanted.’ And now to be told that you’re unwanted—it’s disheartening. Universities are supposed to be open and universal to everybody.”
Katz feels that the rise in these Islamophobic sentiments stems directly from the rhetoric of President Trump.
“Before, people might think these things but not feel licensed to say them. But now they feel like it’s been legitimized,” Katz said.
The university has taken some steps to address the concerns of students. All staff received extra training after the election regarding how to properly and sensitively deal with potential tensions in the classroom, and the School of History, Philosophy and Religion have put on various panels and programs to educate people on the importance of religious and ethnic tolerance. All of these panels have been recorded and are available on the School of History, Philosophy and Religion’s website. The department will also be offering a new class on Islamic traditions in the spring in an attempt to bridge cultural gaps.
“Education is the best way to address this kind of thing,” Katz said.
Ahmad says that the university has been put in a very difficult spot with this issue, but was comforted by President Ed Ray’s statement released to all students on Jan. 30 in opposition to the immigration ban.
“Obviously I would want them to do more. But I also understand the circumstances that they are under. Being a public university, you have to be smart about what you do. Obviously the university should have some values, and they do hold up to them, that’s for sure.” Ahmad said.
“President Ray’s message, that was great.” Ahmad added. “He showed solidarity with the OSU community, the international community, but again, that’s as much as he can do.”
Katz feels that patterns of discrimination are cyclical, and students must be aware of this.
“A generational campus is only four years, or five years. I’ve been here 23 years, and there were incidents involving discrimination against African-American students, and then there’s a response, and then four years later something else happens. We can’t let our guard down. We always have to be vigilant about discrimination and prejudice,” Katz said.
While speaking about the detaining of Muslim refugees, Ahmad briefly touched on his own immigration to
the United States.
“My dad applied for a green card for the U.S. around ‘99 or 2000,” Ahmad said. “We got approved in 2012.”
Ahmad said that refugees desperately need the aid of the US, and that without help these people will continue to live in a war zone.
“Diversity is what makes the world run,” Ahmad said.
Albish agreed with Ahmad, recognizing the similarities between all people.
“I think we are all humans. This is our earth. Either we live in peace, or we don’t deserve it,” Albish said.