Islamic, Arab Groups Go Public
But after Sept. 11, she canceled a whole week of events originally set to start on Sept. 28.
“We had a lot of events planned but we cancelled those because we didn’t want to have our displays graffitied,” SAS President Hamad says.
The cancelled events included a commemoration of the Palestinian intifadah on Sept. 28, 2000.
“We felt it might be disrespectful to the victims and their families and we felt if we made ourselves visible in that way people would lash out at us because we’re Arab and the people who committed the attack are Arab,” Hamad says. Of all the ripple effects the U.S.’s day of terror has had at Harvard, one of the most visible has probably been the more public profile SAS and the Harvard Islamic Society (HIS) have been forced to assume.
As the main Arab and Muslim students’ groups on campus, SAS and HIS have found themselves explaining Arab culture and defending tenets of Islam to a campus rocked by terrorist attacks that were undertaken in the name of Allah.
In the past month, HIS and SAS have led and cosponsored a flurry of events to help educate people about Islam, including panels at the Law School, the Graduate School of Education, the Kennedy School of Government and the Institute of Politics.
“Almost immediately they were thrown into a period of activism,” says Taha B.H. Abdul-Basser, a graduate student adviser to HIS. “They tried to rectify the information gap and educate society about Muslims.”
Among their efforts, HIS started a weekly dinner discussion group in the Houses and has helped raise money for the relief efforts in New York, Washingon and Afghanistan.
SAS has also cosponsored a panel about Arabs organized by the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations and given interviews to local radio stations.
HIS has also made a point of inviting the entire Harvard community to its religious services.
“As horrible as the tragedy has been, we hope we can bring about understanding,” says Tawfiq Ali ’03, secretary of HIS. “It has somewhat defined our agenda at least for the first couple weeks because it’s important we get out the message of what Islam is about.”
A More Public Face
Leaders of both SAS and HIS say that although the terrorist attacks have forced them to rethink their events this semester, the fundamental goals of each group remain unaltered.
HIS President Saif I. Shah Mohammed ’02 says that the mission of HIS is both to provide a forum for Muslims to practice their religion on campus and to promote awareness of Islam at Harvard.
“Our central mission has always been the support of the Harvard Muslim community. That includes some kinds of advocacy and education,” says Zayed M. Yasin ’02, former president of HIS.
Abdul-Basser and Yasin say that the recent unprecedented interest in Islam on campus has simply led HIS to “intensify” their efforts.
“In the longer term, I don’t see that HIS will fundamentally change, other than that their mission, which is go get information out about Islam, will be more important,” Abdul-Basser says. “Depending on how the media treats this, [the interest] may die out quickly and return to the previous level.”
Hamad says although SAS as an organization has not been altered by last month’s events, the group is focused on combating the stereotype of Arabs as “people with diapers on their heads.”
“We’re definitely going to have things next [semester] to show that we’re normal, we’re not a bunch of terrorists,” she says.
For starters, SAS is planning an Arab awareness week for next term in place of the Iraq and Palestinian awareness weeks they have had in past years.
“Instead of focusing on international issues we thought that focus on domestic affairs would probably be more appropriate just to show the campus who we are,” Hamad says.
Shah Mohammed and Yasin say that if anything good has come out of the Sept. 11 attacks, it is the popular effort to understand Islam.
“Whether or not there’s a war going on, there’s a lot of need for it in society,” Yasin says.
Shah Mohammed says he is also grateful for the support that the Harvard community has shown Muslims following the attack. While he has received three hate letters, he has gotten over 300 letters of support, he says.
The attack has also brought members of HIS closer together, according to Yasin.
“A lot of people had to choose whether they identified themselves as Muslim or not. The majority of people were drawn more into the Muslim community,” he says. “People have been praying more, having more social events, more movie nights.”
Shah Mohammed says that the community’s interest in Islam following Sept. 11 has encouraged HIS to make themselves and their goals “more visible.”
Publicizing their organization and mission has long been a problem for HIS, says Mohammed, citing an event that HIS hosted last year featuring speeches by 30 prominent Muslims that got little publicity.
“We never got our act together, but now we have more urgency,” Shah Mohammed says.
Abdul-Basser points out that HIS’s religious services have always been open to the entire community and are held in a University building. Only after the attacks, however, did HIS send out an e-mail specifically inviting non-Muslims to observe their Friday prayers.
“If you look back at it, we’ve always been open to everyone,” Yasin says. “Right now we’re taking extra effort to let everyone know. There’s no change in policy, it’s more a change in marketing.”
As part of its reinvigorated mission, HIS will also “intensify” its cooperation with other student groups, Yasin says.
In the past weeks, HIS has worked with other student groups to organize events and relief efforts. HIS has already spoken and worked with SAS, the Harvard No War Coalition, the Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice and the Afghan Refugee Fund, according to Ali and Yasin.
“We’re strengthening our friendship with other groups like SAA and with the Harvard administration, who has always been supportive of us,” Shah Mohammed says. He says that HIS will be looking to make more connections with student groups than in the past.
“There are some natural points of interfaith with the Haitian groups and the African-American groups on campus,” Abdul-Basser says. “[With] some of the events that are coming up, it’s definitely in HIS’s interest to cooperate with other groups.”
Members of Chrsitian Impact (CI), the Catholic Students Assocation (CSA) and Hillel say they have all expressed their support of HIS in the past month.
“Even before the second tower fell, I was in contact with HIS offering my support to them,” says CI leader Benjamin D. Grizzle ’03, who is also a Crimson editor. “They know that the Christian community is in solidarity with them. I’ve told them if they ever need help, if someone is discriminating against them, that the Chrisitan community will be the first to condemn them.”
Grizzle says he and about a half-dozen members of CI and Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship attended one of HIS’s religious services several weeks ago.
Benjamin Z. Galper ’03, chair of Harvard Hillel, also says he is committed to supporting HIS as a fellow minority group.
He says that a few days after the attack, members of Hillel, Islamic students and members of CSA had brunch to talk about the ramifications of the terrorism.
CSA president Geoffrey A. Preidis says he hopes that “if [HIS] needs anything they feel comfortable coming to us. The greatest thing we can do is pray.”
Grief, Discrimination and War
While HIS and SAS are serving as the ambassadors of Islam and Arab culture, respectively, many group members have been left trying to cope with both their grief and their fear of a backlash.
“It saddened everyone that here we were grieving like everybody else but we were doubly affected,” Shah Mohammed says. “We weren’t able to grieve like we wanted to.” HIS quickly sprung into action to assure the safety of its members and the entire Harvard Muslim community.
Shah Mohammed says he sent out an e-mail on the day of the attacks advising Muslims not to panic, but to take minor safety precautions.
“We tried to take little precautions like not going in dark alleys, going out in groups, telling your roommates where you’re going so in case anything happens there’s a trace,” Shah Mohammed says.
He points out that the group’s fear was not unjustified.
A Boston University student was stabbed in the Back Bay area a few days after the terrorist attacks. A Muslim Harvard graduate student was also harassed outside of the T stop in Harvard Square for wearing a head scarf.
HIS notified the Cambridge Police Department and the Harvard University Police Department following the incident outside the T, urging them to be alert to any violence towards Muslims.
Shah Mohammed says the MBTA police agreed to escort any person who felt unsafe exiting the T stop to the traffic light on Mass. Ave.
Hamad also urged her members to “stay low.”
Neither HIS or SAS have an official position on the U.S. bombings in Afghanistan.
Hamad says that “there are probably the same variety of opinions” in SAS as in the greater Harvard community.
But Shah Mohammed says that many people in HIS have conflicting feelings about the issue.
“The people who did this must be brought to justice. Justice is very central to Islam,” he says. “But there is a second question of innocent people being harmed. Innocent people must not be made to suffer.”
—Staff writer Anne K. Kofol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org