Nasar Khan was 11 when the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks came. While the country mourned the dead and injured and geared up to insulate itself against further attacks, Khan, a Muslim, suffered the taunts of his middle-school classmates in Southern California who chose a new name for him: "terrorist."
In the years following 9/11, there were reports of hate-motivated murders and physical assaults against Muslims, Arab Americans and Sikhs, whose attackers believed their victims were Muslim. Mosques were set ablaze. Close to home — in Fremont in 2006 — an Afghan mother of six wearing a hijab was shot and killed while walking with her 3-year-old daughter to pick up her other children from school. The community believed Alia Ansari was targeted because of her Muslim scarf.
In liberal Berkeley, there is greater overt tolerance, but at the same time, a subtle undercurrent of discrimination against Muslims and Arab Americans continues, said Khan, now a senior studying political science at UC Berkeley.
Patch recently sat down with Khan and Zienab Abdelgany, president of UC Berkeley's Muslim Student Association, at a cafe near campus to talk about Islamophobia and the impacts of 9/11 on the local Muslim community.
"I think it's kind of a myth to think that the left is free from discrimination," Abdelgany said. "I think it takes on a different tone."
The racism encountered in class and in the liberal media and even activists on campus is subtle, she said, recalling a discussion in a women's gender class about "whether Muslim women have agency — meaning whether Muslim women are allowed to think for themselves."
And Abdelgany said she's been in classes where students have equated the hijab — the scarf worn by some Muslim women — with oppression. "Liberal ideology is famous for advocating for the rights of Muslim women who are supposedly oppressed by a patriarchcal society," she said, adding that during discussions about women's oppression, comments are often made about Muslim men being "heinous and oppressive." The distinction between religion and patriarchy in various Middle East and Western cultures are often left out of the discussions, she said.
Abdelgany further pointed to rallies on campus, particularly those supporting Palestine, where Muslims holding placards or handing out flyers have been attacked with racial slurs, such as "Arab pigs," "sandniggers," and "terrorists."
And last year, along fraternity row, Muslim women wearing head scarves had eggs thrown at them, she said.
It seems that, since the election of Barack Obama, Islamophobia has increased, Khan said. Hatem Bazian, professor of Near East and Ethnic studies at UC Berkeley recently opined on Free Speech Radio News that with the upcoming election, the myth that Obama is a Muslim will be used as a wedge issue against his re-election, bringing on a new wave of anti-Muslim propaganda.
Khan and Abdelgany speculated that one reason hate crimes in Berkeley have been low key is that there is no mosque in the city at present that can be seen as a target. One however, will be completed in the near future. The local Muslim community is speaking in advance with city officials about how the community can be safe in its new space, Khan said, noting that even in Santa Clara, where there's a large well-established Muslim community, the mosque became a target for prejudice, with vocal opposition to plans to add a minaret to the converted IBM warehouse. The Muslim community prevailed in this instance and the minaret was built.
Muslim students have worked consistently to counter Islamophobia on the UC Berkeley campus, Khan said. When the College Republicans held Islamo-fascism Awareness Week in 2007 — a week where lectures and events painted Islam as a violent religion — the Muslim students and others created the Coalition for Peace not Prejudice in protest. "It totally blew Islamo-fascist week away," Abdelgany said.
The Muslim student association regularly reaches out to various faith groups. "We try to do a lot of collaborative events with different communities on campus," Abdelgany said, "whether that's the black student union or the Raza community or the Native American community — to understand common threads and common narratives and to build bridges between different communities on campus."
To remember Sept. 11, the Muslim Student Association is joining with the Nikkei Student Union Thursday evening beginning at 6:30 p.m. to fold paper cranes and to show the film Enemy Alien which tells the story of a detained Muslim American in the days following 9/11. The event is in the Martin Luther King student union.
Despite the prejudice and ignorance against Muslims, Abdelgany and Khan experience from time to time, in balance, they say, Berkeley is an open-minded community. "I don't want to paint Berkeley as a place rife with Islamophobic tensions," Khan said. "Berkeley is one of the best when it comes to tolerance."
"It's not only a much friendlier climate but institutionally I think that the Muslim narrative is a lot more widespread" with classes on Islam and Islamophobia, Abdelgany said, adding, "We're very integrated into the multicultural community. We're blessed to be in Berkeley."
For background on 9/11 and its aftermath in Berkeley, listen to Dr. Hatem Bazian, UC Berkeley senior lecturer in Near East and Ethnic studies: http://fsrn.org/audio/wake-september-11-attacks-religious-intolerance-changed-lives/9083
And for a historical view, see the Berkeley Daily Planet's Sept. 12, 2001 coverage: http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2001-09-12