It’s no secret that Islamophobia has been on the rise. Anxieties about unrest overseas and domestic terrorist attacks have caused American Muslims to be the targets of hate crimes. According to USA Today and The Atlantic, the spike of hate crimes and violence towards Muslims after President Donald Trump’s win was worse than after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
Places such as the Rochester Institute of Technology, which is often praised for it’s “diverse and inclusive” learning environment has had a rise in hate-filled activity. And already the campus was no stranger to hate and prejudice. Several times in the last two decades administration has struggled with controversies such as swastikas painted on the outside of a residence hall and even lawsuits that target the systemic issues on campus.
Most recently, the defacing of a mural for the Muslim Student Association in the fall 2016 semester, prompted the group to organize immediately and repaint a new mural. Many students, including myself, were shocked to discover the old mural defaced, with key words like “peace” and “love” scratched out and the word “hate” written over “science.” It was immediately painted over in white by custodians.
“The Muslim Student Association experienced a rather unfortunate incident where our previous mural was defaced and vandalized,” said Halima Aweis, an RIT student part of MSA, who explained that the vandalism was shocking but not totally unexpected.
However, it’s especially hurtful because the MSA is a group of students working to actively reduce the spread of harmful misinformation against Muslims. According to current president of RIT’s MSA chapter, Adeel Ahmed, a third-year graduate student studying mechanical engineering, s the main goal of MSA is to provide support for Muslim students, and in addition to meeting over food and celebrating their history over trivia, it’s now also become part of their organization to educate others.
“The objective of [MSA] is to care for Muslims’ needs, provide a safe space, connect with other Muslims and join a community,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed explained that in the last ten years the MSA has expanded their goals to include outreach programs to counteract waves of Islamophobia. During the academic year, the students have organized a number of discussions on campus allowing students to ask whatever questions they have about Islam. These outreach programs cater to non-Muslims so they can ask questions, as Ahmed put it, “without the fear to offend.” I have attended a few such as the Gray Matter talk “What would you ask a Muslim?” where the entirety of the student leadership for MSA sat at a panel and answered any question given, regardless of insensitivity. And they even have another panel scheduled all day during Imagine RIT though further details on this event is to come.
“It made me feel a little disturbed. Why would someone do that?” Ahmed said was his initial reaction. Later he added, “It was hurtful but it was bound to happen.”
And it had happened before, According to Ahmed, the original mural to the MSA was defaced in 2012. Since this is the second time the MSA’s mural has been targeted a petition was quickly circulated to put up a security camera to catch the culprit if it’s ever defaced again.
Ahmed was proud to announce, “The security camera has been up and running since early March.”
According to Ahmed, the school administration, faculty and students have been incredibly supportive to the MSA during this difficult time.
“RIT’s response to any sort of difficulty or inclusiveness to religious needs has always been satisfying,” Ahmed said.
And Ahmed says that it was non-Muslim students who reported the defacing incident, some even going the extra mile to contact the MSA personally through Facebook and texts. MSA was put in contact with a graphic designer from student government to help redesign the mural and was provided materials from RIT’s Residence Halls Association.
Repainting the mural took two days and a lot of elbow grease but the group said the final product represents all the beauty they find in their religion. The mural is simple: a gradient sunrise or sunset with the silhouette of a city in traditional Islamic architecture style, and in the center of the city is the symbol of the MSA. On the far left is Allah’s name written in decorative Arabic calligraphy surrounded by a gold trim and on a right is a fitting quote from the Quran.
“We wanted to really figure out some way to present what we believe in a very simple and elegant way,” said Aweis, explaining the mural’s design. “So we decided to include a powerful quote that we all identify with…the verse that we chose is ‘Verily in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest’ so we all figured as Muslims we believe strongly in our faith. And we believe in God, we believe in Allah, which is the Arabic word for God…And so, in the remembrance of his mercy…we find rest in believing it.”
“This mural design was not meant to specifically fight any prejudice but rather (be) a show of Muslim presence on campus. We have nothing to defend or apologize for, we’re here,” Ahmed said.
And they are here to stay.