Panel on Islamophobia: failure of the ivory tower

The Institute for Global Citizenship recently held a panel discussion titled “Islamophobia and the Challenge to Civic Life in America,” co-sponsored by the President’s Office, Provost’s Office, International Studies, Sociology, Anthropology, American Studies, Religious Studies and Political Science. Not included was the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, whose chaplains are central to conversations concerning religious and spiritual communities. Ailya Vajid, Chaplain for Muslim Life, was hired specifically to support and advocate for Muslim students; she was neither invited to the panel nor consulted during its development.

Although the event was framed around the challenge that Islamophobia presents to American civic life, it ended without examining how Islamophobia inhibits aspects of civic life. Moreover, although some panelists addressed certain dimensions of Islamophobia, none of them addressed the severity of Islamophobia, its root causes, or its manifestation throughout American history, from Muslim slaves who were refused the right to practice Islam, to the resurgence of Islamophobic policies post-9/11 and today. Finally, there was no discussion on the ways Islamophobia violates American civil liberties, and how we can engage and resist. Thus, the intellectual conversation on Islamophobia that this event sought to provide was almost entirely absent from the presentation.

We take strong issue with the organizers’ justifications for neglecting Muslim voices on the panel: that it was an “academic” forum, and that they did not want to jeopardize international students’ safety. Implicit in this reasoning is a false and innately Islamophobic notion that Muslim students do not meet Macalester’s academic standards. Consultation would have revealed many Muslim students who are well-engaged in intellectual discourse pertaining to Islamophobia. The claim also undermines lived experiences and how they are consistently deprioritized in academia. While speakers recognized the necessity to “humanize Muslims” and to prioritize voices of Muslim women, they repeatedly shirked calls for Muslim student panelists. How can Macalester humanize Muslims when their narratives are actively excluded from a panel about them? This ivory tower of the professoriate reveals its inability to proactively listen to and include the marginalized communities it scrutinizes in academic discussions. Moreover, justifying the absence of Muslim voices due to concerns for international students’ safety foreignizes Muslims and ignores the many domestic Muslim students on campus.

When questioned about what individuals can do to fight Islamophobia, Professor Samatar called for American Muslims to “critically adapt” by analyzing their values and choosing which should be kept and which should be relinquished. This suggestion perniciously alienates Muslims, placing the onus of resolving Islamophobia on the victims of it, and implies that Muslim and American values are incompatible, such that Muslim Americans should choose one or the other.

The organizers had an opportunity to empower Muslim voices for a meaningful discussion on an issue that directly affects Muslims on and off campus, yet they chose not to. Islamophobia is much more than hypotheses; it is the reality of Muslims who feel afraid in an America that continues to dehumanize and erase them. In this realm, Macalester must do better.