On campuses across the country, including the most prestigious higher education institutions, Arab and Muslim students report disturbing incidents of intimidation and efforts to silence political speech. PNS contributors Mitra Ebadolahi, Rita Hamad and Shadi Hamad insist that universities must remain safe places for political expression. The three are undergraduates at the University of California, Los Angeles, Harvard University and Georgetown University, respectively.
American college and university campuses have long been vibrant places for personal and political expression. But since Sept. 11, 2001, students of Middle Eastern descent, ourselves included, have encountered increasing hostility toward our right to speak to politically controversial matters.
It's a troubling extension of the post-Sept. 11 climate, where intimidation, hate crimes and a loss of basic civil liberties have become pervasive realities for Arabs and Muslims in America.
All of us know young Muslim women who for days and even weeks would not venture outside their dorms because they wear hijab (an Islamic head covering) and felt they would be targeted. For them, the scoffing comments or annoyed stares have simply become too much to bear. All of us also know international students from the Middle East who have pulled out of their courses to return home due to a sense of being no longer welcome here.
When criticizing U.S. foreign policy, we too have been told to "Go back home," despite the fact that we are American citizens.
We are not alone in this tense political atmosphere. As the controversy grows over the Israel-Palestine conflict, Jewish students at colleges across the country have suffered a number of ugly incidents due to their religion and stance on Israel. At the University of Colorado, there were reports of swastikas painted at a booth set up by a Jewish student organization. At the University of California, Berkeley, a brick was thrown through a glass door at the Jewish Hillel center. Such actions are absolutely intolerable.
Recently, 300 college presidents signed a letter purporting to call for "intimidation-free campuses." Who could possibly oppose the reaffirmation of our universities as safe-havens for open, free and critical debate?
In fact, more than 1,700 college presidents who were asked to sign the letter declined. They were right to do so. Their move is a hopeful sign for those of us struggling to maintain the right to have a political voice on campus.
The letter, drafted by the American Jewish Committee, had one central problem: it only mentioned Jewish students and "supporters of Israel" as potential targets of intimidation. Such one-sidedness is disconcerting. Just as we should never forget what happened on 9-11, we should also never forget events that followed. Within weeks after the World Trade Center strikes, street attacks against those of Middle Eastern decent reached such a level that President Bush went to a mosque to call for an end to the violence.
Some things have improved since then, but much has not. Last month, the Center for American Islamic Relation's annual report revealed that in the last 12 months, the number of hate crimes against Middle Easterners quadrupled from the previous year.
Campuses were not immune from backlashes and blatant intimidation. Only a week after the Sept. 11 attacks, two Muslim girls were beaten at Moraine Valley College in Palos Hills, Ill.
Free speech for students of Middle Eastern descent has fared little better. Only four months ago, Zayed Yasin, a Harvard graduating senior slated as a commencement speaker, had to remove the word "jihad" from the title of his speech due to death threats against him. Approved by University President Lawrence Summers, the speech was intended to reclaim the true meaning of the word "jihad" as the moral and personal struggle to better oneself and one's community. It was a critical, historical commentary, one that Richard Hunt, a Harvard Dean who read the proposed draft, described as "healing" and "non-confrontational." Yet it was censored.
Attempts to silence free speech have continued, especially on matters concerning Israel and Palestine. In a particularly McCarthyist turn, a recently founded Web site called Campus Watch encourages students to report professors who criticize Israel.
Reaction to an emergent divestment movement that hopes to pressure Israel to end its military occupation has been similarly troubling. As students on campuses across the country have called for their schools to withdraw U.S. corporate investments supporting Israel's highly repressive policies, they have unjustly been called anti-Semites.
This is the worst kind of slur. Student critics of Israeli policies are no more anti-Semitic than opponents of apartheid were anti-Afrikaner or advocates of Tibet are anti-Chinese. Criticizing the actions and laws of a country is very different from attacking people for their religion, nationality or ethnicity.
U.S. universities have always been places largely free from intimidation, free from pressures to conform in religion or politics, and free from slurs meant to squelch debate. This must not change. Freedom of speech on campus must not become a relic of a once open and democratic past.