Colleges Forced to Address Rise in Anti-Muslim, Anti-Semitic Rhetoric on Campuses

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In 2015, Virginia Tech police responded to a threat — made via graffiti in a campus bathroom — to “kill all Muslims” on a stated date. After discovering a similar graffiti message on its campus, Eastern Kentucky University reportedly shut down for a short time.

[Above: Students at the University of Michigan remove hateful chalk messages left on campus.]

In the same year, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic posters encouraging violence against Jewish and Muslim students were displayed on American University’s campus. And in 2016, Newsweek reported that several Jewish student events were disrupted at Boston University, the University of Maryland, and the University of Florida and that the University of California discovered anti-Semitic language — advocating “sending Zionists to the gas chamber” — spray- painted on campus walls and buildings.

Unfortunately, stories like these and many others — describing a rising tide of hateful rhetoric and speech, racism, discrimination, and in some cases, hate crimes, against various minority and religious groups — are becoming more common. Where religious prejudice is concerned, anti- Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiments and related acts are occurring with alarming frequency across the nation, in a variety of venues. Notably, U.S. college and university campuses are among the environments experiencing a significant rise in these odious attitudes and actions.

A Growing Problem
In 2015, there were reportedly more hate crimes committed against Muslims than there had been since 2001. At that time, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the FBI noted a 1,600 percent increase in hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims. Recently, the FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics report indicated that such actions against Muslims rose 67 percent in one year — from 2014 to 2015.

Helping illuminate those numbers are findings from the University of Michigan’s Islamophobia Working Group, a collaboration of faculty, staff, and students who have been studying the recent increase and impact of anti-Muslim sentiment. According to the group’s 2016 report, 40 percent of Americans view Islam unfavorably, and 43 percent of American Muslims have experienced hostility, racial profiling, or attacks.

Other data show a similar trend regarding rising anti-Semitism. According to a Trinity College study, 54 percent of Jewish college students experienced anti-Semitism in 2014, and by 2015, nearly 75 percent of students had experienced anti-Semitism, according to a study from Brandeis University.

University of Michigan (UM) students and faculty engage during a town hall meeting, hosted by the Arab and Muslim American studies program, after the killing of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, N.C., in February 2015

The AMCHA Initiative — a nonprofit organization dedicated to investigating, documenting, educating about, and combating anti-Semitism in higher education — has found that nearly 70 percent of the 100 U.S. colleges and universities with the largest Jewish populations have experienced anti-Semitism on their campuses. In 2015, the organization also tracked approximately 450 incidents of anti- Semitism — a figure that jumped to over 600 in 2016.

Different, But Not New
While these reports and numbers are alarming, discrimination and hate directed toward members of Muslim and Jewish faiths are not unfamiliar.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

“Anti-Semitism in the United States and on campuses has been brewing for much longer than people realize,” says Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a co-founder and the director of the AMCHA Initiative.

Evelyn Alsultany, PhD, associate professor and director of the Arab and Muslim American studies program at the University of Michigan and director of the school’s Islamophobia Working Group, similarly notes that anti-Muslim rhetoric and racism on college campuses have long affected student experiences.

Evelyn Alsultany

“What distinguishes current events is how racist discourse is unapologetic and blatant and comes from the highest office in the country,” says Alsultany. “The result has been an increase in hate crimes against many groups — Muslims, Jews, immigrants, African Americans — from those who feel empowered and emboldened to voice and enact their racist perspectives.” Alsultany’s group found that a number of students have recently experienced several forms of hostility — such as verbal and physical assaults, hate mail, and microaggressions (e.g., insensitive, inappropriate, or offensive comments) — from faculty and other students.

Rossman-Benjamin describes this surge in anti-Semitism as frightening and says that the rise of the “alt-right” white nationalist movement is partially to blame, as are extremists on the far left. In recent years, anti-Zionists — those who oppose the movement to create a Jewish state in the Middle East — have become a force on many campuses, she says.

“Far too often, anti-Zionist activists have singled out, harassed, intimidated, and even assaulted Jewish students who were engaging in … activities having nothing to do with Israel and regardless of how those students personally feel about [the issue],” explains Rossman-Benjamin. “When anti-Semitism or anti-Semitism is shrouded in anti-Israel rhetoric, that is more complicated and [is] what we see a great deal of on campus.”

Combating Harm
Though the rise in anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim rhetoric and discrimination are clearly problematic, Rossman- Benjamin points out that intolerance across the board is rising and harming individuals of all backgrounds.

“There are hundreds of acts of hatred and intolerance targeting [not only Jewish individuals, but also] Muslims, African Americans, LGBTQ individuals, immigrants, women, and people who hold divergent ideological and political viewpoints,” she says.

Alsultany agrees and believes that college and university administrators have an important role to play as they attempt to balance constitutionally protected speech against other types of discourse on campus. “What has become clear is that how university administrators respond to crisis situations matters in [regard to] how students experience a sense of belonging on campus,” says Alsultany. “It matters when administrators, for example, make clear statements about their commitment to diversity and to the inclusion of Muslim students rather than defending students’ right to free speech and thus hate speech.”

Undergraduate student members
of UM’s Islamophobia Working Group (from left to right) Nadine Jawad, Tina Al-khersan, and Areeba Jibril received the Michigan Difference Award for their work challenging Islamophobia on campus in March 2016.

Bossman-Benjamin acknowledges that dialogue and debate are healthy parts of the learning process. However, she feels that some of the language being used on campuses by certain groups and individuals has crossed a serious line. “Diverse opinions and backgrounds should be valued. Debate should be encouraged, but it should never veer into hate,” she says.

For Rossman-Benjamin, who is also a lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, addressing intolerance against all students is important. She points to the University of California’s 2016 Regents’ “Principles Against Intolerance,” which outlines the university’s policies for addressing intolerance and fostering a mutually respectful environment on its campuses. She believes those principles — which, in part, call on the regents to “actively challenge anti- Semitism and other forms of discrimination within the university community” and to “educate members of the community to recognize, understand, and avoid biases, stereotypes, and prejudices” — can serve as a blueprint for other universities.

The University of Michigan, Alsultany says, is focused on three key areas to address rising discrimination
and hate on campus: resource building, crisis support, and education. In concert with these efforts, the Islamophobia Working Group’s upcoming initiatives range from providing numerous resources for crisis response, support, reporting, and counseling, to adding more prayer spaces on campus, to making changes to textbooks to better reflect Arab culture.

Toward similar ends, some colleges and universities, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have adopted general education diversity requirements. Students must successfully complete a diversity course that educates them about concepts like cross-cultural analysis and communication.

Some institutions have launched interfaith campaigns and created groups to encourage mutual understanding among people of different religions. Others have established “safe spaces” on their campuses — areas for students to gather without being subjected to ideas or speech they find unsettling.

Although each college and university’s approach to addressing the rise in hateful rhetoric will differ, Rossman-Benjamin believes there should be no room for any type of intolerant behavior on campuses.

“University leaders should develop policies and procedures that encourage tolerance and safeguard all students’ freedom of expression and equal protection under the law,” she says. “We must restore respect and civility [on] our campuses and prevent all forms of hate.”●

Kelley R. Taylor is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.