Disrupting the divide

“Hate is human nature. When we are ignorant of things we react in a negative way.”

Wajdi Said, executive director and co-founder of the Muslim Educational Trust, offered that poignant observation at a recent City Club of Portland panel discussion entitled, “The Threat of Islamophobia.”

The Jan. 8 event, hosted by the club at the downtown Sentinel Hotel, featured prominent thinkers from the city’s Muslim community, including Said. The panelists discussed the effect of recent world events and trends within politics on stoking anti-Islamic sentiment within the United States.

Islamophobia, or the fear or dislike of Islam and its Muslim practitioners, has long been a contentious topic throughout the United States. But current global events, including the 2015 attacks by extremists in Paris and San Bernardino, and inflammatory political rhetoric have contributed to a backlash against Muslim communities across the nation.

Portland has seen isolated incidents of anti-Muslim actions since the attacks, including a November protest at the Portland Rizwan Mosque.

The City Club panelists discussed broadly the issue of Islamophobia, with several pointing out that American Muslims are often forced to defend their U.S. citizenship. They also talked about the double-standard of Muslim communities being pressured to publicly denounce attacks by unrelated extremist groups.

Nadia Najim, a senior at the Tigard-based Oregon Islamic Academy, pointed to day-to-day incidents as examples of alienation. She recalled an incident in a local store when a random shopper pointed to her and called her a terrorist.

“I grew up here, you know,” Najim said during the discussion. “I have always been American and I always will be American. But there are people on TV telling me I’m not.”

Incidents at Portland State

On Nov. 24, Associated Students of PSU President Dana Ghazi issued a statement to the student body calling for unity on a range of issues, including food security, tuition and systemic racism, among others. The statement provoked a range of responses, Ghazi noted, from support to constructive skepticism.

But Ghazi also noted that she received several reactions that pointed to her national origin, arguing that she was “anti-American and anti-Semite,” and that she “[had] a Middle Eastern agenda.” Those responses prompted Ghazi to report to the Dean of Student Life and the Global Diversity Office out of concern for herself and her ASPSU colleagues.

“Some of them were plain racist and scary, honestly,” she said. “It was really hurtful.”

Ghazi is not alone in her experience. She pointed to communications from the Office of International Affairs about similar complaints from other students. One such incident involved a student who chose not to return to class due to intense harassment and targeting during discussions.

“These incidents of Islamophobia and racism are affecting them,” Ghazi said. “All of these are connected, and students should be aware of it.”

Dr. Carmen Suarez, vice president for Global Diversity & Inclusion at PSU, agreed. She also noted a spike of incidents sparked by anti-Muslim attitudes, such as an incident where a heckler approached a female student, causing her to fall.

That incident underscores a particular risk faced by Muslim women that opt to wear a hijab, a concern pointed out by both Suarez and Ghazi.

It becomes really unsafe for specifically Muslim women because you can easily identify them,” Ghazi said. “That’s a danger in the current environment at PSU, and I think that’s important to talk about.”

Suarez pointed out that PSU’s urban layout blurs the lines between campus and community, highlighting the importance of aggressively responding to incidents of hate and racism. “There is no clear-cut ‘this is PSU community,’” Suarez said. “We are the community. Some of our valued community members are being targeted. They feel unsafe.”

Responding to hate

The question of how to respond to hateful acts continues to challenge leaders in the community and on campus.

Panelists at the City Club forum advocated for similar discussions, citing the powerful impact that results when diverse groups unite. “This type of dialogue will diminish Islamaphobia,” Najim said. “[The panel] was an effective method because engaging as a group is much more powerful than one-on-one.”

Leaders at PSU are working to organize similar events, providing platforms to discuss safety and how to protect targeted groups.

ASPSU has organized a roundtable event on Tuesday, Jan. 12 entitled, “Redefining Safety on Campus.” The event page describes the discussion as an invitation to, “stakeholders at Portland State University to have an open conversation on safety.”

“[The] event is aiming to really start unwrapping all those different meaning of how people are thinking of safety,” Ghazi said. “Right now there’s just polarization.”

Another goal of these events is to create solidarity across groups that are struggling to be heard. Though responses to Islamaphobia have been the impetus for many recent forums, leaders like Ghazi and Suarez see this as an opportunity to unite community members from a variety of groups.

“To create that student movement we need to have solidarity, where supporting the causes of each other is only going to make us stronger, not going to make us weaker,” Ghazi said.

Learning how to understand

The ignorance that Said referred to during Friday’s panel discussion is something that community members hope to dispel through educational forums.

“There’s a lot of myths out there about what different countries of origin, Middle East, religions, Islam, etc. It is our responsibility to join together and provide the information that sets aside the fears that engender hate and bias, and to be allies,” Suarez said.

According to Ghazi, part of the learning process means recognizing that simply offering to stand with Muslim students isn’t always enough.

“There isn’t a sense of understanding,” said Ghazi. “This alienation is extremely real.”

Ghazi hopes for more specific action plans from university administrators, citing the recent resolution signed by the City of Portland as an important example. The resolution specifically reaffirms the city’s Muslim community and welcomes all immigrants and refugees.

Plan of action

Beyond today’s roundtable event, the Portland community has responded to the recent rise in anti-Islamic rhetoric by organizing a slew of events to provide education and a platform to grow understanding across diverse groups.

Suarez is working with several on-campus groups to organize a forum aimed to disrupt hate and bias. The event will take place on Feb. 25, place and time TBD.

A solidarity rally is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. on Jan. 16 at Portland City Hall. The rally, entitled “#interrupthate #standforlove,” will be hosted by a selection of community organizations standing against hateful speech and actions.

PSU will also be hosting the founders of #BlackLivesMatter for an evening of cultural arts and discussion on Feb. 16. All three founders of the movement will be present for a community group meeting and student dinner.

“We really needed this conversation,” said Aisha Kheir, a student at Oregon Islamic Academy who attended Friday’s forum. “There are 1.7 billion Muslims in the world… this is one way to break down stereotypes.”