Ammer Ahmad, an MU junior who is originally from Palestine, was interning at an herbicide manufacturing company last summer when he was taken aback by a racist comment. Ahmad was describing a reactor problem to a coworker, to which the coworker replied, “You would know if it’s going to explode.”
This account was just one of many shared by students, faculty and community members who packed into Hulston Hall on Tuesday night for a town hall forum on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
Called “A Time to Listen: Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and the Mizzou Community,” the event was hosted by the religious studies department in response to the recent arrest of two students for anti-Semitic harassment and anti-Semitic and Islamophobic incidents across the country.
After the event switched rooms to accommodate the crowd, Rabia Gregory, associate professor of religious studies, introduced the forum and read a portion of the statement issued by the department in response to the arrests.
“‘Our department feels a special obligation to highlight and speak out against such behavior, but more than that, to recognize that when it happens in our midst, on our campus, we as an institution must admit our failure to educate our students to be critically self-reflexive and aware of how they relate to others,’” Gregory quoted from the statement.
Panelists included Jeanne Snodgrass, executive director of Mizzou Hillel; junior Hannah Turner, a member of the Chabad at MU leadership board; Rabbi Avraham Lapine, co-director of Chabad at MU; Shakir Hamoodi, a member of the Islamic Center of Central Missouri; and Ahmad, a Muslim Student Organization member.
After opening statements that addressed comprehending the gravity of the situation facing Jews and Muslims today, the panelists answered a question from moderator Nathan Hofer, an assistant professor of religious studies with an emphasis on Islam and Judaism, concerning their feelings on administrative response to recent incidents.
“If the leadership in the university are afraid the funding will be cut by legislators, probably they will hold their [standard] short of what is the optimal,” Hamoodi said. “They lead this campus, they have to be very frank and very fair to their students, and they should not let the legislators in Jefferson City dictate on them what is safe on this campus and what is not safe.”
Hamoodi suggested sending a resolution to administrators calling for a large meeting of imams, rabbis and priests to discuss discrimination and propose ways to eliminate it within their individual faith communities.
“If we can educate the parents, we can at least limit this crisis,” he said.
Snodgrass gave the administration “some credit for trying.”
“[Discrimination] needs to be named from the top, from the head, and it needs to be condemned so that it can be addressed, but I think it’s also something that everyone on campus and in the community has some responsibility to be addressing as well,” she said.
The floor was then opened to the community for questions, and multiple people asked how to confront someone who is using anti-Semitic or Islamophobic language.
Ahmad said his rule of thumb was to “refer to statistics and facts and numbers.” Turner, who suggested that most individuals do not realize the implications of their words, said students should reply, “What do you mean by that?” to draw attention to their intentions.
Snodgrass attributed the rise in instances of hate speech to cultural normalization.
“People need to be educated as to what the references and tropes are for anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, because the people who know it best are the people that experience it,” she said. “It’s not always recognizable if you’re not familiar with it, and sometimes you don’t always know what’s being said right in front of you.”
Leah Rosenberg, visiting assistant professor of religious studies, gave an impassioned speech acknowledging all students.
“There’s a lot of people out there that don’t want to recognize our humanity,” she said. “The tepid response of this administration to events on this campus is unacceptable … I see you; you belong here; this is our school.”
Panelists also shared their personal experiences with the audience.
Hamoodi, who was sentenced to three years in prison in 2012 for sending more than $200,000 back home to Iraq while the country was under U.S. sanctions, talked about the difference between Islam and the Muslims who follow it.
“You lash out at Islam, but we Muslims pay the price. So we ask and appeal to our countrymen to be very sensitive, because people do not distinguish between Islam and Muslims,” Hamoodi said. “Islam is an idea and a religion; Muslims are human beings.”
Turner talked about visiting the St. Louis Jewish cemetery that was vandalized in February, resulting in damage to over 100 headstones, and seeing non-Jews there.
“I was in line next to a priest, and right behind me was a Palestinian girl. Honestly, I was expecting mostly Jews,” she said. “This proves to me that this is happening to us as a collective. It’s happening to all of us.”
Afterward, Ahmad described the similarities between Islam, Judaism and Christianity and advocated for opportunities to connect with students from other faiths. Ahmad recently participated in the Muslim Student Organization’s “Ask a Muslim” booth in Speakers Circle on March 8. He also attended an interfaith trivia night on Feb. 20 with students from the Catholic Student Association, the Muslim Student Organization, the Jewish Student Organization and the Reformed University Fellowship. He said events like these can foster relationships and continue to educate students.
Gregory noted that the religious studies department thought a public forum was necessary to advance the dialogue.
“This campus has not been talking about incidents when they happen,” she said. “We report them, people say things privately about how concerned they are, but it seemed like it would be really useful to have a larger conversation in public.”
Gregory also expressed her hope for future events.
“I think it’s pretty clear that people still have a lot more to say,” she said.
Edited by Kyle LaHucik | firstname.lastname@example.org