Action Project

Muslim UW students experience Islamophobia, fear presidential campaign rhetoric

Linda Sarsour speaks at an Islam Across Races dialogue shortly after the Chapel Hill shooting.

Image By: Betsy Osterberger

Donald Trump's rhetoric throughout the 2016 presidential campaign has sparked outrage from members of the American Muslim community, and for Muslim UW student Alaa Fleifel, it has sparked fear.

In December, Trump called for a "total and complete" ban on Muslim immigrants entering the United States, just weeks after he proposed registering Muslim Americans in "some type of database.”

“When people get riled up about hating Muslims, eventually Muslims are not seen as human, [and] they become easy targets,” Fleifel said. “I honestly have felt somewhat unsafe.”

Amid a presidential campaign that has centered on issues relating to Islamic extremism, Fleifel’s comments echo the sentiments of many in the UW Muslim community.

Although much emphasis has been placed on Trump, anti-Islamic sentiment has been common since well before this election cycle. According to a poll conducted in 2015 by the Public Religion Research Institute, 56 percent of Americans believe Islam is “at odds” with American “values and way of life.”

Political experts say Trump is capitalizing on white Americans’ frustration and latent prejudice against Muslims, Latinos and other groups.

During a recent discussion about Islam at the Multicultural Student Center, some Muslim students said although Trump and other Republican candidates may be furthering Islamophobic sentiment in the U.S., they are not the root of the problem.

“[Trump’s rise] was inevitable,” said one Muslim student. “Division already existed … The channel by which this division was created is the media.”

“Trump has not changed anything,” said UW student Naman Siad. “People have just gotten more confident in their hatred for Muslims because they have a spokesperson.”

Even in Madison, a city widely seen as a bastion of liberalism, Muslim students can be the targets of hateful speech.

Fleifel said she and other friends who wear the hijab have been harassed and accused of belonging to ISIS on the UW campus. More often, though, prejudice against Muslims in the UW community is more nuanced.

Dr. Hayder Al-Mohammad, an assistant professor in the UW Department of Anthropology, said the bulk of the prejudice he sees is “wrapped up in much liberal politeness.”

“I was raised in the UK, yet at UW people find it difficult not to reference my 'culture.' I have a thick London accent yet the 'culture' being referred to is not British,” Al-Mohammad said. “Rather, my 'culture' is one meant to align more with my skin color and curly hair. This form of prejudice is exhausting.”

Muslim students said because so many of their peers have had little or no contact with Muslims in the past, some do not know how to be respectful toward people of unfamiliar cultures or faiths.

“It delegitimizes my American identity when people tell me I speak English really well,” Siad said. “English is my first language.”

“People don't sit next to me in class,” said student Dania Shoukfeh. “You just kind of get used to it after a while.”

Some also point out that Muslim students may be treated differently because of their skin color as well as their religion. White students make up more than three-quarters of the UW student body, and students of color can find it difficult to find a community.

“Identifying as a minority in a predominantly white campus has brought conflicting feelings,” Fleifel said. “[Prejudice] is not the case for Muslims alone, but for minorities in general.”

Al-Mohammad also said the line between racism and Islamophobia can be difficult to determine. Muslim students are “kept apart from much of UW life” not just because of their beliefs, but also because of their skin color, he said.

“What might seem as prejudice against Islam could just be old fashioned racism masking itself under more acceptable forms of hate,” he said.

Whether the problem is specific to Islam or general xenophobia, Fleifel contends it can be alleviated by greater contact between students of different backgrounds.

“I think everyone has preconceived notions of who Muslims are,” Fleifel said. “But as soon as a stream of conversation starts people become more empathetic.”

Al-Mohammad said removing barriers between students of different races is essential for eliminating prejudice against Muslims.

“When you can have white, black and Hispanic students engaging each other as equals and peers at UW—we're a long way off from that—I assure you anti-Islamism goes away.”

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