During March, fliers headlined “Punish a Muslim day 3rd April 2018” reached Muslim communities in Colorado. Originating in London and mimicking the same delivery style, the anonymously sent fliers were left outside mosques and religious centers. The inciting message detailed a point system: the worse the crime, the higher the points.
Almost 17 years after 9/11, Muslims in the U.S. continue to encounter xenophobia and hate crimes. Muslims and Muslim immigrants in general are largely successful in integrating to American society despite a recent chain of events making them feel unwelcome. However, the fliers’ impact reignited the debate over whether Muslims can or cannot integrate in the West. The voices of Muslim students in the University of Colorado at Boulder speak in reaction to their tales of integration and racism in the U.S.
Civil engineering student Danah Alhatem, 19, from Kuwait, studied English in Alabama before coming to Colorado. The white-hijab-donning Alhatem, with contrasting dark brown eyes, said the responses to wearing the hijab differ by location.
“In Boulder, no. I don’t face racism but in other parts of the states, yes,” Alhatem said. “People stared at me in Alabama and they kept staring like I’m an alien or something.”
When Alhatem visited the parking services department in CU Boulder to pay a parking violation fine, she said the clerk had complemented her headscarf and called it “beautiful.” Alhatem also recognized that her situation isn’t always the norm for Muslim women in the U.S., citing an incident in Pennsylvania where a friend who also wears a headscarf faced verbal abuse. Alhatem said her friend, whom she refused to name, had “things thrown at her” and “cursed [at] in the middle of the street.”
Alhatem doesn’t “care to confront anyone” she said, explaining that she understands “where this perspective comes from, because of the media.” The freshman also said “people need to educate themselves” and stated that education is offered in social media.
“I think social media helps introduce diversity to others,” said Alhatem. “There, you can educate yourself before talking about us Muslim people. There, you can try to be more accepting of diversity.”
On Twitter, the #LoveAMuslimDay campaign retaliated against the Punish a Muslim day efforts.
Huffington Post journalist Roweida Abdelaziz tweeted this image of a coffee shop offering “free coffee for all Muslims” as a Punish a Muslim Day special:
Fatma Buhamad, 22, an Arab-American hijab-wearing engineering senior experienced similar circumstances as Alhatem. The first generation American of Kuwaiti origins completed her primary and high school studies intermittently between the U.S. and Kuwait.
“I’ve visited every state except Hawaii and never saw any racism,” she said. “Everyone was so nice to me when I was a young girl with a hijab and everyone’s so nice to me now as a young woman with a hijab.”
Buhamad joked about her “rare case,” saying she’s never spent “more than five minutes at customs” when she travels but later mentioned the “scary situations” her family members endured. Buhamad said her cousin Sendes, who lives in London, “didn’t leave her apartment or go to class” when news of the Punish a Muslim fliers broke. Her brother, Hassan, 26, a college student in Florida, lived through unluckier circumstances.
“A homeless guy once hit my brother and beat him up so bad. He was shouting ‘get out of my country’ and ‘you’re not welcome here’ then hit him on the head,” Buhamad said. “The ambulance came and cops and he was hospitalized. The cops were cooperative though, they really cared and they really tried to catch that guy.”
When asked if politics played a part in allowing a platform for xenophobia, Buhamad said no.
“They have functional checks and balances in this country,” she said. “Even if Trump gave these racist people a voice, it was the media ruining our image anyway. In their movies, any terror has to come from Muslims and that makes us feel ashamed. They’d be so surprised if they trusted us intellectually.”
Differing with Buhamad, Abdul-Latif Abdul-Jalil said the state of racism “usually revolves around politics.” The 23-year-old, double majoring in computer science and mathematics, offered an experiential explanation as to where anti-Muslim sentiments come from. In 2014, Abdul-Jalil waited at a bus stop late at night for a ride back to his apartment. He dropped his backpack next to an “old, white woman” and “out of respect to her,” went to smoke a cigarette a “few feet away.”
“I turn around and she’s going through my bag,” Abdul-Jalil said. “I asked what she was doing and she said ‘I was just looking for contact information.’ I said ‘oh, I thought you were stealing my bag.’ She got angry and screamed at me ‘I’m not like you people, stealing everything. You wetback.’”
Abdul-Latif stopped to laugh.
“She thought I was Mexican. That’s the problem,” he said. “This fear, built upon ignorance more than hatred, is the same thing their president does every day. It didn’t matter if I was Arab or Mexican or Jewish, it’s just the fear of the other. It’s a reflection on Western politics. Not Western people or culture, those people would jump to my defense and I know it.”
Racism focused on Muslims may or may not be a function of a political scene. The Cato Institute, a nonprofit and nonpartisan public policy research organization, reported Muslims fare better when integrating in the U.S. than Europe despite Latif’s argument. The report presented polls conducted by Gallup and Pew which measured integration through the moral acceptability of homosexuality and abortion—issues forbidden in Islam. Muslims accept homosexuality and abortion at larger percentages in the U.S. than their co-religionists in Europe, the report found.
Muslims also fared better economically in the U.S. than Europe. The employment rate of Muslims in the U.S. surpasses those in Germany, France and the U.K.
Muslim Population Employment Percentage
Alex Nowrasteh, author of the report and senior immigration policy analyst for Cato, believes economic limitations set the boundaries for integration rather than politics. Even though Nowrasteh is “worried about policy” when it comes to debating immigration, immigration policies “need some time,” he said.
Nowrasteh said “state-based visas” would be a good start to tackle immigration problems in the U.S. and alleviate the stress on “hate that flows both ways” between the native and the immigrant. Last year, after “a few televised interviews,” Nowrasteh received multiple death threats, he said. State-based visas would grant state governments the authority over controlling the immigration process which Nowrasteh believes would lower racial tensions while focusing on economic outcomes more.
When asked about hate crimes and the effects of immigration on racism, Nowrasteh said:
“We forget that hate flows both ways and we forget that the media overblows hate crimes on Muslims. The Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities have all seen an increase in hate crimes against them in both Europe and America.”
Press play to listen to Alex Nowrasteh’s comments on rising hate crimes on the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities.
Presented with Nowrasteh’s statements, Yousef Shashtari, a mechanical engineering senior, responded in agreement. However, the 23-year-old, in reference to hate flowing both ways, said “ideas are scarier than events.”
“Everyone believes they have the absolute truth,” Shashtari said. “So that forces people to also feel inferior. In Boulder, if you’re not secular enough then you’re less. In Saudi Arabia, if you’re a Shiite Muslim, you’re less. When it’s about power, things are based on hatred and war and division. It should be based on education.”
Education is Project Nur’s main goal when it comes to bridging together Muslim communities with U.S. society. The organization describes itself as a “student-led initiative advocating for social justice” between Muslims and all communities.
Stuart Elnagdy, 23, is an officer of Project Nur in CU Boulder. The international affairs senior also helped organize The Daily Show’s Senior Correspondent Hasan Minhaj’s visit to campus late April. Elnagdy said Minhaj, an Indian-American Muslim, brought an “equitable way” of discussing Muslim relations in the U.S. In Minhaj’s visit, a promotion to his new Netflix stand-up comedy special, Homecoming King, joked about the Punish a Muslim day initiative quoting one of Nowrasteh’s Cato Institute reports on terrorism and immigration.
The joke revolved around the absurdity of fearing a Muslim terror attack in the U.S. as the report, a 41-year period study, stated the possibility of such an attack to be 1 out of 3.6 billion.
“One of the aims of our events is to elucidate different topics in a nonpartisan way,” Elnagdy said. “We try to talk about things like feminism and Islam not being mutually exclusive.”
Coming from Mexican and Egyptian roots, Elnagdy said the only way people who “don’t think about freedom, women and God the same way” can understand each other is to expose them to “academic perspectives that call out each others narratives.” After 9/11, Elnagdy said his father, a former construction worker, “couldn’t work anywhere because of a lack of trust” so he returned to Egypt.
When asked about his opinion on what policies can best fix immigrant relations in the U.S., Elnagdy said:
“We can’t do much other than start a conversation.”