The rise in hateful rhetoric, harassment and abuse directed at Muslims here and across the country prompted a frank discussion at Southwest High School on Dec. 12, in a forum organized by Ward 13 City Council member Linea Palmisano in coordination with her colleague Abdi Warsame.
Moderated by Palmisano, the forum involved panelists Warsame, who represents Ward 6 on the City Council, as well as Congressman Keith Ellison, community leader Yusra Arab and musician and youth minister David Scherer. The four discussed ways residents can act up against Islamophobia in all its forms.
Starting out the forum, the Muslim members of the panel shared their own experiences with Islamophobia, which, for Ellison and Arab, have gotten much worse in the last few years.
“A lot of people think that Islamophobia kicked into gear after 9/11, but that’s actually not true” Ellison said. “After 9/11, we had a president — who I disagreed with over almost everything — who did go to a Muslim mosque, who did say we were not going to tolerate anti-Muslim hate. It was a few years after that when Islamophobia really took off.”
Ellison said Islamophobia was cultivated by an industry that manufactures and propagates anti-Muslim hate, and there’s been an increase seen in the last two presidential elections.
Here in Minnesota, a number of incidents have happened recently, including in 2015 when Asma Jama, a Somali-American Muslim, was attacked with a beer mug at a Coon Rapids Applebee’s restaurant. At the University of Minnesota this fall, vandals spray-painted “Isis” over a Washington Avenue Bridge panel designed by the Muslim Students Association.
Meanwhile, 3,000 Muslim students and 1,500 Jewish students still don’t have halal and kosher meal options on campus, according to J. Cody Nielsen, a campus United Methodist chaplain who attended the forum.
Arab, who grew up in Minnesota, says she never felt different from her peers when she was young. Back then, she didn’t cover her hair or dress as modestly as she does now, but even so, she says she wasn’t impacted personally even by the aftermath of 9/11.
Now, it’s a different story, especially with the things that politicians have said over the course of an election year that she calls “unimaginable.”
Her 7-year-old daughter stayed up all night on Election Day, she said.
“It was the first time I actually had fear,” Arab said. “I had to calm myself down.”
For Arab, being a Muslim-American woman who covers up means that she’s constantly identifiable for her religion.
“You see me a mile away, and you know what faith I’m in,” she said. “You never know what person will believe what they see on TV.”
Warsame shared his story of growing up in London after his family had to flee Mogadishu during the Somali Civil War. Warsame remembers racism in London all too well.
“I remember swastika graffiti on our house,” he said.
After 9/11, things got much worse, when even his name became something people feared.
“You are now black and Muslim, and it is a double count against you,” he said, “even though you spent your life in the West, and you thought in English and dreamt in English and were as English as anyone else.”
The panelists had some advice for how to fight fear. They enthused over the use of safety pins to show solidarity with Muslims, as well as efforts by church leaders and others to build connections not only between people of different faiths but between urban and rural residents, too.
Arab said one of the simplest things you can do is get to know someone.
“Say ‘Hi’ as you go down the street,” she said. “Try to get information from people that actually live it.”
Becoming friends with someone who is different than you, she added, helps you not to be afraid anymore.
“Bigotry is in the heart, not in the mind,” Warsame said. “To overcome it, we need to build relationships.”
The panelists also urged allies to be vocal in their support. For example, Ellison commended those non-Muslim people who posted lawn signs wishing Muslims a “Blessed Ramadan” during the faith’s holy month in June.
“The first time I saw the signs, I felt a little misty,” Ellison said. “I thought wow, these are our neighbors.”
Not speaking out, on the other hand, can have disastrous consequences, and Ellison had harsh words for leaders at the University of Minnesota who have not come out strongly enough against hate speech.
“Honestly, I think there have been a number of incidents that the president needed to speak out on, and regents did too, but they just have been silent,” Ellison said, referring to University President Eric Kaler and the school’s 12-member governing body. “It seems like the University is so consumed with getting the next corporate contract that the welfare of student life is just not front and center. … If the administration would just speak up and say, ‘This is a welcoming environment and we are going to re-enforce that,’ I think it would go a long way.”
After the forum, Somali students from Southwest High School said they were very concerned about Islamophobia coming from their peers. Qalid Hussein, who is part of a spoken word group at the school, said he wishes more students had attended.
“I know I have homework, but I really wanted to be here,” Hussein said. “I know we need to get adults to understand what we are going through, but we also should get the students who made these racist remarks, too.”
Hussein said he’d heard two white students using the N-word in the school’s hallways.
“They were just doing it because of popular culture, and that’s the thing now,” he said. “It’s been ingrained that this word doesn’t have meaning. I want them to understand that that word shouldn’t just be used without knowing the meaning behind it.”