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Monday, June 24, 2024

Muslim students pray at an Iftar during Ramadan hosted by the Muslim Students Association at the Red Gym on March 14, 2024.

Muslim, MENA students report harassment but don’t feel supported by UW-Madison. Here’s why

Muslim and Middle Eastern North African (MENA) students at UW-Madison believe more cultural identity centers can help the safety and community of marginalized students on campus.

Reem Itani, a Muslim and Palestinian student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was walking back to her dorm one day wearing a traditional keffiyeh when someone spoke to her in Arabic. 

They said, “bismillah a salam wa alaykum” — a common greeting among Muslims meaning “in the name of Allah, peace be upon you.” But Itani said they used a very “white accent” in an attempt to mock Muslims.

“It makes me feel like I'm not really welcome on campus,” Itani said. “If I reported that, I don't think the administration would care enough to actually look into it.”

Other Muslim and Middle Eastern North African (MENA) students have experienced physical harassment, derogatory name calling and other verbal harassment, according to Itani. 

Students said they feel unsafe and unsupported on campus due to harassment and a lack of concrete administrative support. 

During the pro-Palestine encampment from April 29 to May 10 — which pushed for UW-Madison “financial and social” divestment from Israel — Muslim students reported experiencing discrimination on campus because of their identity as a Muslim or MENA, according Itani.

And some students said the university more broadly lacks care for these groups, causing them to push for more organizational support on campus. 

State Rep. Francesca Hong, D-Madison, found Islamophobic messaging near Langdon Street on May 6, including a poster depicting a woman in hijab with the message “Islam is satanic/martyrs burn/in hell.” It is unknown who was responsible for these messages. 

Francesca Hong Islamaphobia Sign.jpg
Courtesy of Francesca Hong/Twitter

A student shared in an anonymous MENA hate crime form that another student spat at them for wearing a piece of cultural clothing that identified them as Arab. 

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This form was created in late March by Haia Al Zein, the diversity and engagement chair for the Associated Students of Madison (ASM), for her project increasing support of MENA students on campus. It is not the official UW-Madison “racial bias or hate” crime form.

Another form response said “the girls across [from my door] reported mine and my roommates ‘free Palestine,’ sign.” 

“They claimed I was being antisemitic and continued to use harsh language towards me and my POC roommate. A couple of weeks later they ripped down the sign and yelled curse words at our door,” the student said. “All of this has occurred on the Multicultural Learning Community on the second floor in Witte, a community designed for BIPOC students to feel safe and welcome.”

However, these feelings are not isolated to the encampment or current events. 

Al Zein said she never “blinked twice” about being a Middle Eastern immigrant before coming to UW-Madison, but now she feels differently.

“I felt like every time I interacted with new students, they looked at me a little differently — I've never had that feeling before in my entire life,” Al Zein said. “I think for a very long time, I kind of suppressed my identity.”

Muslim students say lack of support from administration alienates them

In communications throughout the semester, UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin condemned both Islamophobia and antisemitism, but Itani said these statements lack weight because Mnookin hasn’t detailed what Muslim students are going through on campus. 

“They can put in their statements ‘We condemn Islamophobia,’ but you don't condemn it if you are silent when actions [against Muslims] happen,” Itani said. “The administration pretends to support [us].”

Itani also said the administration does not equally support Jewish and Muslim students. 

“I’d like to see the same care for Muslim students as for Jewish students. I would like to see the same empathy for both groups,” Itani said. “I don’t think the chancellor really empathizes with Muslim students enough.”

Al Zein’s MENA hate crime form also received a response from a Jewish student sharing her experience with antisemitism on campus and how she feels unsafe to go out. Al Zein said both Muslim and Jewish students feel a “certain level of unsafety on campus,” and she wishes the groups could find solidarity in that.

“It's such a common ground among students, and I wish both parties could find that middle ground,” she said.

In communications with Mnookin preceding the encampment, Itani, who participated in the pro-Palestine encampment, said she felt a lack of empathy towards Palestinians. 

“Even in the first semester when we had a meeting with [Mnookin], one of my friends was like, ‘70 of my family members have died in Gaza,’ and then [Mnookin] was like ‘well, what about the other side?’” Itani said. “That’s just not what you say.”

Many participants of the encampment were “dissatisfied with what little could be achieved through negotiations with this administration,” according to an Instagram post from Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), one of the groups who organized the encampment. 

SJP came to an agreement with administration on May 10 to remove the encampment and respect university policy in future protest in exchange for facilitating discussions into disclosure and investment principles with decision makers at the UW Foundation (WFAA).

The university will also increase support for students impacted by war, violence, occupation and displacement, including Gaza and Ukraine, through a review of student engagement from the International Division, an invitation to a scholar from a Palestinian university for the next three years and a student affairs staff member focused on supporting students “impacted by war, violence and displacement.”

“The fact that they adhered to none of our demands shows that they don't care enough about Muslim and MENA students to actually do what we want them to do,” Itani said. “There's no systemic changes that they concretely promised to put in place.”

Itani also felt police violence against protesters demonstrated carelessness for people of color on campus, particularly the people of color who were arrested at the encampment.

“When a bunch of my friends were arrested and professors were harassed, when the police came, she didn't even condemn that,” Itani said. “She said we are the problem, basically implying that the police have to do this.”

Students call for more safe spaces for Muslim, MENA students on campus

Despite these incidents, there aren’t safe spaces for Muslim and MENA students to come together on campus, Itani said. 

Itani cited cultural centers like the Latinx Cultural Center in the Red Gym as a way to further culture, safety and education for these communities on campus. Itani said a “physical space and more support” for Muslim and MENA students on campus would help them flourish.

“It would be a safe space for Muslim students, even to study and to know they won't be targeted at all,” Itani said. “It’ll be a completely safe space like Hillel and Chabad are for Jewish students.”

Students fill their plates with food at the April 2 "Breaking Bread: Iftar Jubilee" event hosted by the Gamma Epsilon Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha. Courtesy of Alpha Phi Alpha.

Itani is not alone in her advocacy for more cultural centers. Al Zein released a petition to create a MENA cultural center on campus in March which has since received 341 signatures. 

“I wanted people that were higher up to see that students want this,” Al Zein said. “It isn’t just something that I am advocating for.”

UW does currently offer MENA programming, like heritage month events, through the Multicultural Student Center, but Al Zein doesn’t believe this is sufficient.

Students push for a MENA cultural center

A MENA cultural center would give students the opportunity to meet one another in a safe space, further their success through group empowerment and attend various cultural, educational or religious events, Al Zein said. She said it could also help people learn about different cultures outside of their perception of the Middle East from the media.

A physical space to meet other students with similar identities is something Al Zein wished she had when she began attending UW-Madison, which is a predominantly white institution.

Al Zein said she plans to bring this plan to UW-Madison administration, but has seen a lot of “hesitancy” when it comes to identity centers.

In an April media roundtable, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori Reesor said it can be difficult to decide “how many [centers] we will have and who decides [them],” with many groups looking for space on campus. 

“I have a lot of friends from back home that don't want to come to Madison because of the lack of diversity,” Al Zein said. “ MENA within itself is so diverse, and you get to learn about all these states that are intertwined in the same group.”

Al Zein said she wishes people understood the MENA center is not intended to exclude any one ethnicity or race but is an identity group to empower students.

And while Itani said she struggled to meet other Palestinian students arriving on campus, finding the community helped her feel understood. 

“I don't really need to explain myself to anyone when I am in a space with those people,” she said. “A lot of times, even if people have good intentions, it is exhausting to try to keep explaining to them why Palestinians matter.”

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Mary Bosch

Mary Bosch is the photo editor for The Daily Cardinal and a first year journalism student. She has covered multiple stories about university sustainability efforts, and has written for state and city news. Follow her on twitter: @Mary_Bosch6



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