On Sept. 28 — during one of the last days of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Muslim calendar — two white men sprayed a chemical irritant into a crowd of Muslim women and children at a local mosque in Dayton, Ohio. For Usama Qadri '10, president of Yale's Muslim Student Association, and other Yale students, these attacks were personal.
"A couple of us, myself included, have friends and family who go to that mosque," Qadri said.
But rather than respond with hatred, Muslims at Yale organized a panel to discuss and hopefully dispel common misunderstandings about Islam. The panel, "ISLAMophobia! And the U.S. Presidential Elections," drew a crowd of about 70 students on Tuesday night.
This particular series of events started on Sept. 1, when 28 million anti-Muslim DVDs entitled "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West" were distributed in states considered up for grabs in the upcoming presidential election — including Ohio — by the right-wing group the Clarion Fund.
At the panel, Omer Bajwa, coordinator for Muslim life at Yale, argued that the gas attacks in Dayton were partially incited by the accusations against Muslims contained in the DVD.
Yale students were concerned that the hate crimes were going unnoticed by the wider public, including some of their classmates, Bajwa said.
"They are frustrated with what's going on," Bajwa said. "The Islamophobia, slandering Obama and now the DVDs … there's been a lack of media attention [to these events]."
Tariq Mahmoud '11, the panel's primary organizer, said the event was entirely planned less than a week after the attacks in Dayton.
"It was an immediate response to the event," Mahmoud said. "I think that shows how riled up the community was."
Mahmoud said he hopes the panel cleared up any misinformation about Islam, especially the popular conception that it is an inherently violent religion.
The panel featured Jon Butler, the dean of the Graduate School; Zareena Grewal, a professor of Ethnicity, Race and Migration; Andrew March, a professor of religious studies; and Melissa Matthes DIV '09, director of the Initiative on Religion and Politics.
Before the panel, the crowd watched the theatrical trailer for "Obsession," with clips of Muslim extremists chanting "death to America." Bajwa said the DVD is a form of propaganda, at times splicing images of Muslim extremists and Nazis.
All the panelists agreed the "Obsession" DVDs were inaccurate and incited hatred. Matthes said that in spite of the damage done by anti-Muslim propaganda, she believes that the "irrationality of love" is the most effective tool at overcoming these differences.
Grewal said she is frustrated with the way the media treats Islam.
"I feel like [these issues] don't get any attention," Grewal said. "Muslims have not been able to narrate their own story in the public sphere."
Grewal said that often Muslims or individuals with Muslim-sounding names — like Sen. Barack Obama — become "guilty by association" with regards to anti-Muslim propaganda.
In fact, anti-Muslim propaganda tends to portray all Muslims as radical extremists, Butler said.
"Many people do not have the capacity to make the distinction between the extremists they see in the videos and [Muslims] in their own communities," March added.
More than 100 scholars have signed a petition organized by a professor at Hofstra University, protesting "Islamophobia" in the current presidential campaign, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.