Two weeks after a comment perceived to be anti-Semitic ignited controversy at Harvard Law School, a coalition of student groups published an open letter condemning administrators for what they considered an inappropriate response to threats consequently directed at Muslim students.
The letter—which was published in the Harvard Law Record on May 3 and signed by leaders of 11 student groups, including Reclaim Harvard Law—also calls on students to petition Law School Dean Martha L. Minow to “upstand” for Muslim students at the school. In recent speeches, Minow has urged students to be “upstanders” and actively combat injustice.
Muslim students began receiving online threats and harassment shortly after third-year Law student Husam El-Qoulaq called former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni “smelly” at an event on April 14. Many Law School affiliates and outside observers decried El-Qoulaq’s comment as anti-Semitic, and Minow condemned the remark as “offensive” in a letter to school affiliates. El-Qoulaq denied that the comment was intended to be anti-Semitic.
Now, the Muslim Law Students Association is leading affinity group leaders in charging that Minow did not display the same level of public outrage when Muslim students became the target of hate speech.
Before El-Qoulaq’s identity as the commenter became public, one unidentified female Muslim student—who had not attended the Livni event—became the target of online threats and hate mail accusing her of anti-Semitism. Third-year Law student and Muslim Law Students Association board member Noor Zafar said several Law School alumni and people unaffiliated with the school also directed racist comments to several other Muslim students online.
The female student who was the target of initial defamatory comments met with Law School Dean of Students Marcia L. Sells and Minow, who offered the student security, counseling, and assistance removing her personal information from the Internet, according to Law School Spokesperson Michelle B. Deakin.
The student asked administrators to issue a statement to Law School affiliates denouncing malevolent speech directed at Muslim students, according to the student groups’ letter, and Sells sent an email to students after a faculty member became involved. “Much of what has been tweeted or posted about these events amounts to cyber-bullying, trolling, and bigotry, and it tears at the fabric of our community,” Sells wrote in the email.
A week later, Minow issued a statement to Law School affiliates referencing “troubling expressions of racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim prejudice,” writing, “we are better than that.”
Muslim students viewed these responses as inadequate, Zafar said, because Sells addressed her message to students—who are not the main perpetrators of anti-Muslim messages—and they said Minow’s letter felt vague and lacking in urgency.
The student groups’ open letter called administrators’ response a “belated and tepid denunciation” that was part of “the administration’s pattern of prioritizing political expediency over the politically unpopular needs and concerns of Muslim students–even when their physical safety is at risk.”
Deakin emphasized measures Minow has taken in recent years to create a hospitable environment for Muslim students at the Law School, including offering support to students after attacks in San Bernadino and Brussels, and expanding the school’s Islamic Legal Studies Program.
“Dean Minow has been deeply involved in assuring that our Muslim students are supported by the school, especially when the national political climate has been plagued by scapegoating and intolerance,” Deakin wrote in an email.
Zafar said, however, she thinks events of the past few weeks indicated that “institutionally, the administration has not been doing enough to really make Muslim students feel that they’re welcome at HLS.”
Sixty-four people in addition to the letter’s original signatories have signed the student groups’ petition thus far.—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC