Alienation and Animation Among Muslim Students

In the era of Donald J. Trump’s presidency, Muslim students at Manhattan College are feeling alienated and politically engaged.

Trump has thrice ordered travel bans from several majority-Muslim countries since ascending to the Presidency in January. While running for the Republican nomination for President on Dec. 15, 2015, Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

“The rhetoric has emboldened people more. People who, you know, may have been quieter,” junior biology major Haris Ali said. “The whole, divisive nature of the way people speak and interact – it can be disgusting.”

Haris Ali, 21, is from Yonkers, and is vice president of the Muslim Student Association (MSA).

“I would say after the election of Trump, it’s become more unsafe,” said junior marketing major and MSA member Donya Quhshi. “It’s become more acceptable to be Islamophobic.”

Quhshi, 19, was born in Yemen and emigrated to the United States in 2007. Since then, she and her immediate family has lived in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx.

“Now people are just outward and open about [Islamophobia],” sophomore Rabea Ali said.

Rabea Ali is the MSA’s president. She grew up in the Kensington section of Brooklyn, which has a large Muslim population, but currently lives in Nanuet, N.Y., in Rockland County.

Rabea Ali said she was twice forced to leave her N.J. Transit train due to harassment on Nov. 9, 2016, the day after Trump was elected President.

“One, I stepped off of and the other a man physically picked me up and took me off the train,” Rabea Ali said. Rabea Ali said she was again harassed – this time by an MC student – while walking back to campus from Riverdale Diner on Kingsbridge Avenue.

“As we were walking up to Kelly, a student passes by and says something along the lines of, like, a slur. And calls me a terrorist,” Rabea Ali said. “And all I could think was, ‘Is this the world that we’ve come to?”

“I’ve never faced discrimination in this college thus far. So, I’ve always felt safe […] until I heard her story, and I thought, ‘Okay, if they can do it on campus, then they’re not scared,” Quhshi said.

The incidents experienced by Rabea Ali prompted her to go to some of the campus’ resource spaces.

“That very day, the next place I went was the Multicultural Center or places like Campus Ministry, that openly say they stand with Muslims,” Rabea Ali said.

Quhshi and Rabea Ali, who both wear hijabs, have grappled with discrimination for most of their life – with much of it centered on the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which were carried out by Al Qaeda, an Islamist militant terror group.

“All my life I would hear, ‘Muslims are terrorists. Muslims did 9/11,” Rabea Ali said.

“When people discuss 9/11 in class, everyone just looks at me,” Quhshi said. “What am I supposed to say?”

Much of Quhshi’s extended family is still in Yemen, and though they want to emigrate to the U.S., the rhetoric coming from Trump is disheartening to them.

“After the election, I have family, who – they don’t want to come here,” Quhshi said. “They don’t want to be sent back. They think it’s pointless.”

“Yemen right now is in a war zone. And my family is trying to escape that. My cousin’s school was bombed. They can’t even go to school,” Quhshi said. “They want to come, but […] they think they’re just going to be sent back. That it’s going to be a hard time.”

Last Tuesday, eight people were killed in Lower Manhattan when Sayfullo Saipov, 29, allegedly drove a pickup truck down the Hudson River Bikeway in what Mayor Bill de Blasio dubbed “an act of terror.”

Witnesses on the scene told CNN that the suspect shouted “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “Allah is great,” after exiting the vehicle.

The MSA members who spoke to The Quadrangle emphasized that the attack is not representative of their faith.

“The first thing that [goes through my mind] is ‘please don’t identify as a Muslim. Please, please don’t identify as a Muslim,” Haris Ali said.

“It just hurts the community,” Haris Ali said. “People expect me to answer for that. People expect other Muslims to […] answer for that. Otherwise they think we’re being complacent.”

Haris Ali asked, “How many times do we have to say, ‘Nope, this isn’t us,’ or, ‘No, this isn’t Islam?”

“People expect us to condemn these attacks. Obviously we condemn them,” Rabea Ali said. “I shouldn’t have to go out of my way to be like, ‘This isn’t Islam.”

In Haris Ali’s experience, the Trump phenomenon has emboldened American Muslims to speak out and become more engaged in the civic process.

“If anything, the best thing that Donald Trump has done is… he’s awoken people,” Haris Ali said. “[Muslims] are a lot less inhibited by fear and a they’re being a lot more proactive now  because they’re saying, ‘if not now, then never.”

Under Rabea Ali’s leadership, the MSA is currently looking to nail down a designated prayer space in the new extension Leo Hall.

The MSA also hosts events to increase the Muslim voice on MC’s campus. On Friday, the MSA hosted an interfaith prayer.

Next semester, Rabea Ali plans to hold an entire week of events entitled “Islam Awareness Week.”

“There’s so many people that go to this campus that haven’t even met a Muslim or had a conversation with a Muslim. So just getting to know people and creating a safe community where everyone knows they’re getting attacked… physically or verbally.”