Campus Muslim students braced for backlash

By Malcolm Gay and Turaya Bryant Special to the Daily Planet
Friday September 14, 2001

There was only one topic of conversation in a swarming Sproul Plaza Tuesday morning: the terrorist attacks on some of the country’s most symbolic buildings. People spoke to family members through cell phones, pairs of students quietly wept, hands flew and words were fast as emotion-laden arguments erupted throughout the crowd.  

But as the initial horror turns to grief, UC Berkeley’s Muslim community has an added concern: fear of a violent backlash to media portrayals of Muslims as irrational zealots. “Every time something like this happens they pin it on Muslims,” said Nadia Yousef, her head covered in a traditional Islamic scarf. “I was told to be careful on campus.”  

Yousef, 19, is one of about 500 Muslim students on the Berkeley campus. “I’m concerned about attacks on the Muslim community,” she said, adding, however, “I’m not that worried about my own personal safety.”  

But leaders of the Muslim Student Association said they see harassment as a real threat. “Most of our concern is for our Muslim sisters,” said Basin Elkarra, 21, association president. Anticipating intimidation, the MSA has set up a network of members to escort Muslim women walking alone. In an attempt to bridge the prejudicial gap they say the attacks have formed, the MSA and other campus groups are also planning an inter-faith prayer session for today. They are also planning a blood drive with the student government for next week.  

Elkarra said these activities are to build solidarity between Muslims and non-Muslims.  

Nonetheless, the group is planning for the worst. A few people have approached the MSA’s information table on campus angrily blaming them for Tuesday’s tragedies, he said. “We’re staying in groups right now.”  

But these instances are rare, he said, noting that people have approached him expressing remorse and compassion.  

University officials said there are systems in place to aid students who are victims of harassment. But in light of Tuesday’s tragedies the university has stepped up its efforts. “We’re going to set up a seminar on safety tips for Muslim women,” said Dean of Students Karen Kenney. “We would do the same for any community that expressed the need.” Kenney also said that the university is in the process of enhancing its system for reporting and responding to harassment claims. Efforts include a 24-hour harassment report line, as well as on-site counseling services in residence halls.  

Campus police said they have also stepped up security in light of Tuesday’s events. “We have extra officers on the campus,” said UC Police Captain Bill Cooper. Cooper added that the campus police are always prepared for incidents of harassment, though they are now on heightened alert.  

The students emphasized that the alleged acts of isolated Muslim terrorists do not reflect the ideas of the majority of Muslims. “Islam condemns the loss of innocent life at any time,” said Elkarra, adding that any attack upon a non-occupying force is not justified within the teachings of the Koran. 

Many students expressed a sense of injustice as well as concern. “As an American citizen they should investigate and bring the culprits to justice,” said Aadil Khan, 18. “If it’s government-sponsored, I’m a proponent for an eye for an eye. That military action should take place. But if it’s individuals they can’t take action against the country.”  

Khan added that American foreign policy is often perceived by other cultures as arrogant and meddling.  

“I can understand why other countries would have animosity toward the U.S., but I don’t think that justifies this type of attack,” he said.