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Muslim Students Apprehensive About Post-Election America

The day after Donald Trump was elected as the next U.S. president, a Muslim student wearing a hijab was assaulted in an above-ground parking garage on the campus of San Diego State University, in California.

Two men made comments “about president-elect Trump and the Muslim community,” grabbed the woman’s purse and backpack, and stole her car, according to a statement by campus police.

Two days later and 3,700 kilometers away, outside the University of Michigan, a woman was forced to remove her headscarf after a man threatened to set her on fire with a cigarette lighter, according to the university’s crime report. The same day, 1,200 kilometers from there, in Georgia, a high-school teacher found a handwritten note on her desk. It said: “Your headscarf isn’t allowed anymore. Why don’t you tie it around your neck and hang yourself.”

Since the U.S. presidential election, there has been a spate of harassment that authorities are mainly treating as hate crimes. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization that tracks extremists, compiled a list of 315 such incidents that took place in the first week since voting, directed mostly against Muslims. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation reported on Monday that in 2015, there were 257 reported incidents of anti-Muslim hate crime, compared to 154 the year before, a 67 percent increase.

Both on and off campus, students from Arab countries, and Muslims in general, say they are feeling increasingly anxious. “There is definitely a strong sense of vulnerability,” says Zoha Ahmad, an undergraduate biology student at the University of the Sciences, in Philadelphia. Ahmad was born in the United States; her parents immigrated from India.

During America’s long election campaign, Trump repeatedly called for increased scrutiny of Muslims, including stepped up surveillance of those living in America and a ban on Muslims entering the country.

“I’m involved in lots of interfaith work” with Christians and Jews, says Ahmad. “It felt like we’d made so much progress since 9/11.” But it turns out many Americans are open to Trump’s negative attitudes toward Muslims, she says.  His election is “normalizing a climate of hate and intolerance.”

But many schools and higher-education institutions have condemned the incidents and have worked to make their campuses safe for Muslims, minorities, immigrants, and others who are the targets of the attacks.

That was the case when San Jose State University, in California, was the scene of two incidents. In one, a Muslim-American student was grabbed from behind by her hijab and yanked backwards, causing her to fall. Later, a male South Asian student arriving at an engineering building to study was confronted by a man who yelled at him to “go back to his own country,” according to university officials.

San Jose’s president, Mary Papazian, called the female victim personally to offer her support. The vice president called the male student. In a statement, Papazian condemned the assaults, adding, “an attack on any member of our family is an attack on us all.”

At a number of campuses, including San Diego, the university administration organized meetings and discussions to calm students and reaffirm that expressions of hostility toward Muslims or any other group would not be tolerated.

Trump has not gone back on any of the harsh statements he made during the campaign. But in an interview aired on the leading television news magazine, “60 Minutes,” five days after the election, he said he was “saddened” to hear about the attacks by some of his supporters against minorities.

“I say, ‘stop it,’” Trump said.

Many of Trump’s critics want him to condemn the acts of intimidation more strongly.

Social media are also being used to send racist and xenophobic messages. At the University of Pennsylvania, a group of black freshman were sent violent, racist images through a GroupMe messaging account, according to university officials. The images included a “daily lynching” calendar.

After the authorities determined a student from Oklahoma was responsible, he was suspended.

In most of the incidents, campus authorities have announced they were formally investigating, and sometimes asking the police from nearby communities to intervene. In addition to harming the atmosphere of safety and tolerance that most university administrators say they strive to maintain, such incidents may undermine the lucrative flow of foreign students to American higher education.

The just released annual “Open Doors” report on student mobility shows that for the first time, more than one million foreign students were enrolled at American colleges and universities during the 2015–2016 academic year, up 7 percent from the year before. Ten percent came from the Middle East and North Africa, and Saudia Arabia was the third largest sender of students, after China and India.

A survey of international students earlier this year found that many had serious concerns about a possible Trump presidency. The poll of 40,000 students in 118 countries, conducted in March by two international student recruiting firms, found 60 percent of respondents said they would be less likely to attend U.S. universities if Mr. Trump was elected (compared to 3.8 percent who felt that way about Hillary Clinton).

Meanwhile, many Muslim student activists are reacting to the spike in post-election harassment by increasing their visibility, rather than lying low.

Muslim, Christian, and Jewish campus groups have responded to the election with interfaith meetings, panel discussions, and potluck dinners all aimed at promoting tolerance. And several chapters of the Muslim Student Association, hastily organized events on their campuses intended to teach their fellow students about their religion. These included setting up tables to distribute roses with quotes from the Quran..

In addition, some Muslim Student Association chapters are organizing more public service events, where their members help in such activities as distributing food to homeless people, caring for the elderly, or cleaning up a park.

Such events give Muslim students the opportunity to show that “the fact that we pray five times a day doesn’t change the fact that we are normal people,” says Noor Jemy, a recent graduate and president of the Muslim Student Association council of Philadelphia.

Jemy, who moved to the United States from Bangladesh as a young child, has been heartened by the reactions she has gotten in her neighborhood of Philadelphia. She wears long dresses and a colorful headscarf. But seven or eight times since the election, she says, she has been stopped by strangers who shared words of encouragement, apologized for the election results, or even gave her a hug.


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