Panel explores Islamophobia, draws critique for lack of representation

Students%2C+faculty+and+community+members+gather+in+Weyerhaeuser+Boardroom+on+%0AThursday%2C+Feb.+16+to+hear+a+panel+discussion+on+national+and+international+Islamophobia.+Photo+by+Emma+Carray+%E2%80%9920.

Students, faculty and community members gather in Weyerhaeuser Boardroom on Thursday, Feb. 16 to hear a panel discussion on national and international Islamophobia. Photo by Emma Carray ’20.

Students, faculty and community members gather in Weyerhaeuser Boardroom on
Thursday, Feb. 16 to hear a panel discussion on national and international Islamophobia. Photo by Emma Carray ’20.
Although many of President Trump’s policy changes and executive actions have incited waves of anger and protests, none have generated as much conversation and public resistance as his ban on individuals from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States.

A chance conversation between anthropology professor Dianna Shandy and international studies professor Ahmed Samatar just a few weeks prior to the ban inspired them to do something for Muslim students and others feeling singled-out and under threat. The product of their idea was last Thursday’s panel discussion, “Islamophobia and the Challenge to Civic Life in America.”

For two and a half hours, Macalester students, faculty and community members listened to and engaged with professor Samatar and sociology professor Khaldoun Samman, as well as religious studies and international studies double major Jacob Bessen ’17 at the panel.

Samman, who was born in Jordan and immigrated to New Jersey at age 8, began the event with a lecture about Islamophobia’s fast-spreading presence in the American mindset.

He explained how “Islamophobia is having an effect on liberal sensibilities,” with explanations of how far-right political organizations are having to branch off from classic anti-Islamic messages in order to have real power and include liberals in their sphere of influence. As a result, according to Samman, “Islamophobia is really starting to change the way the West sees itself.”

He pointed to the French far-right presidential candidate and leader of the National Front party Marine Le Pen as an example of this tactic of ideological persuasion.

Bessen’s speech focused more on the root of the issue, and honed in on Macalester’s shortcomings in its responses to Islamophobia. Included were suggestions for future approaches that should be taken regarding the matter. “Macalester is a very tolerant campus [but] ‘tolerance’ can no longer serve as a substitution for ‘critical’,” Bessen said. “A demand for tolerance is a poor substitute for a demand for equality. Therefore, tolerance cannot be the weapon in our fight against bigotry and xenophobia.” Included were suggestions for future approaches that should be taken regarding the matter.

Professor Samatar’s remarks ignited discussions, which fueled the rest of the evening. Mapped out in three main directions, Samatar kept his talk short and spoke directly to his points about the “durable features of American society,” reasons for Trump’s presidential victory, and what we can do about it.

“We Americans will become what we do … I propose we not only resist, but oppose,” Samatar said.

Surrounding this call to action was an underlying message that identities must transcend labels of religious and racial classifications to gain more of a “political bite” with which to fight back against injustices of the government. Some students felt this was an uncalled-for encouragement of assimilation of Muslim culture into that of the American mainstream identity, but Samatar was quick to emphasize a distinction between his use of the term “critical adaptation” and the assumptions of assimilation.

Meanwhile, Muslim and non-Muslim students alike strongly expressed feelings that the panel would have been greatly enhanced with the voices of Muslim students speaking as main presenters — especially given the points made concerning tokenism.

“I thought that it was a topic that is really important to discuss, but I wish that I had been able to see more student representation” said J.P. Sieck ’19. “I get that we have a lot to learn from professors, but as a student, I’m going to connect more to other students’ testimonies, and I want to learn from them what they think I should do.”