At a time when hate crimes against Muslim Americans have spiked to their highest levels since the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Harvard’s Islamic Society hosted a discussion highlighting discrimination faced by Muslims in the United States on Friday.
The event was planned in “response” to Donald Trump’s recent election to the presidency, according to Anwar Omeish ’19, the society’s director of external relations. Omeish led the conversation Friday afternoon, lecturing to a packed crowd in Boylston Hall’s Fong Auditorium. Students squeezed into the room to hear, with many sitting on the floor.
Over the course of her hour-long presentation, Omeish named individuals and organizations that she said comprise a “network of Islamophobia.”
She placed particular emphasis on anti-Muslim sentiments enshrined in scholarship, and identified Harvard as an institution that acts as “a generator and amplifier” for “Islamophobic rhetoric.”
“When we [at Harvard] talk about rescuing women and children, when we talk about whether or not Islam is compatible with democracy, or about bringing democracy to the Muslim world, that is imperialist rhetoric that… continues to reify Islamophobic discourse,” Omeish said.
She also criticized Harvard for hosting Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Dutch-American author and outspoken detractor of Islam who in 2013 became a fellow of the Harvard Kennedy School’s “The Future of Diplomacy Project.” Omeish said Ali is one of a group of activists who “lead the efforts to spread misinformation” about Islam in America.
“She was leading study groups [at Harvard] on the radicalization of Muslims without being academically qualified in any way to do so,” Omeish said. “She’s called Islam ‘a destructive nihilistic cult of death.’”
Brandeis University in 2014 cancelled its plans to give Ali an honorary degree in light of her anti-Islam comments, writing in a press release that “certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s values,” the New York Times reported at the time.
Attendee Henry S. Atkins ’20 said he was surprised to learn of Ali’s involvement with Harvard. “I can’t say that I think that her views have any credibility,” he said. “Those kinds of views just plain and simple don’t belong on campus.”
In addition to Ali, Omeish identified Walid Phares, one of Trump’s top foreign policy advisers, as a vocal critic of Muslims. Phares, who often appears on Fox News to discuss radical Islam, is “one of the people anti-Muslim people turn to for validation of their views,” she said.
Over the course of his controversial campaign, Trump himself often spoke about Muslims and Muslim Americans. A year ago, he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” in the wake of a massacre in San Bernardino, Calif.
In the days after Trump’s election, some Harvard students and faculty reported hate speech and harassment based on their ethnicity or disability. Harmann Singh, a first-year Harvard Law student, wrote in a recent editorial for the Boston Globe that he was called “a f***ing Muslim” by a stranger in a store near campus.
Diana L. Eck, a Lowell Faculty Dean and a professor at the Divinity School who attended Friday’s discussion, said she found Omeish’s talk “very effective.”
“I think the greatest impact of this rapid-fire presentation… was the range and detail of the sources of Islamophobia,” Eck wrote in an email. “All of us need to be more aware and discriminating in public discourse about Islam.”
Omeish herself said she thought the event went “really well,” but added that the Islamic Society is already considering “next steps.”
“We will continue applying pressure to and working with the administration to achieve our goals of funded chaplaincy, Muslim life programs, and mental health resources,” she wrote in an email. “We will continue fighting for issues that we share with our friends and allies, including declaring Harvard a sanctuary campus for Muslim and undocumented students.”
—Staff writer Hannah Natanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @hannah_natanson.