Muslim students on college campuses across California find themselves struggling at times to practice their faith in relative safety with access to accommodations that foster a healthy and productive academic environment. A bellwether of a healthy democracy is if college and university campuses provide genuine spaces for individuals and communities to come together in learning and expressing themselves freely regardless of national origin, ethnicity, religious belief, and immigration status.
To better understand the most prominent issues facing students in colleges and universities, CAIR-CA released its first ever report analyzing American Muslim college and university students, titled ‘Campus Climate Report 2019-2020,’ which surveyed students at over 60 institutions of higher learning throughout the state of California, including public and private universities and colleges.49 The report’s stated purpose was to examine the experiences of Muslim college students and the issues they face, particularly due to their real or perceived Muslim identities.
Among the key findings of the report was that Muslim students who expressed their faith visibly i.e., through religious or cultural appearance experienced significant levels of harassment and discrimination based on their identity with Muslim students generally reporting high levels of discomfort expressing their political opinions.50 Of note, nearly 48% of Muslim students reported feeling unwelcome to express themselves when engaged in political advocacy on campus. Even more troubling,nearly one half of respondents were subjected to bigoted comments about Islam and Muslim from their peers, while one out of three respondents reported that such bigoted comments were directed at them by their professors or instructors.51 Student respondents were also at pains to point out that the representation of Islam in their class materials or by their professors in relation to Islam or Muslims often bordered on Islamophobic.
Disappointingly, the survey findings strongly hint at systemic indifference and inaction by college administrators in responding to documented incidents of harassment and discrimination towards Muslim students. For example, an astounding 74.7% of Muslim students reported that school administrators failed to make statements, accommodations, or otherwise address the effects of significant policy issues impacting their community, such as the Muslim Ban.52
CAIR-LA’s civil rights team was approached by concerned students at the University of Southern California (“USC”) in late 2020 after a student leader resigned from office claiming she was the target of anti-Semitic attacks stemming from her support for Zionism. In response, USC President Carol Folt sent a letter to the campus wide community conflating criticism of Israel and Zionism with anti-Semitism.53 This false conflation was also unfortunate given that a group of Muslim Student Union (“MSU”) students were subjected to ongoing online harassment and defamation by pro-Israel organizations who criticized MSU members’ political activism against Zionism and Israeli human rights abuses.
Concerned by this attempt at muzzling freedom of expression and the increasingly unsafe campus environment for Muslim students at USC, CAIR-LA worked alongside its allies and issued a public letter to President Folt’s office cautioning the administration of silencing individuals or campus groups who voice opposition to Israel’s discriminatory apartheid practices against Palestinian communities and support the right to dignity and self-determination for all Palestinians.54 The letter further demanded that the USC administration drop the Anti-Defamation League (“ADL”) – a noted proponent of Islamophobia, anti-Black and anti-Palestinian racism historically – from its proposed “Becoming Stronger than Hate” series. This demand was made especially in light of an exposé revealing the ADL’s role in condemning the Movement for Black Lives, pro-Palestinian advocacy, and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and the organization’s support of racist policing, surveillance, colonialism, and silencing of social justice activism.55 CAIR-LA continues to be engaged with members of USC’s administration to address attacks on Muslim and Palestinian students’ rights to free speech and their marginalization on campus.
In another instance, CAIR-SFBA worked alongside partners such as Palestine Legal, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights to pressure the University of California, Berkeley (“UCB”) and its administration, particularly Chancellor Carol Christ, to address the recurring harassment and suppression of Palestinian and Muslim students and their allies on campus.56 In a letter addressed to Chancellor Christ, CAIR-CA denounced the series of physical and verbal attacks on Palestinian and Muslim students that occurred on or near UCB’s campus in the aftermath of a public campaign by a student senator to censor and malign a photo display of Palestinian female political figures belonging to the student group Bears for Palestine (“BFP”).57 The Associated Students of the University of California (“ASUC”) senator also tried to intimidate a Palestinian student who opposed the censorship efforts by threatening to add her to the Israel-aligned blacklisting site Canary Mission.
After the censorship resolution was voted down at an ASUC meeting in February, an anonymous student took to the floor during public comment to announce his plans to join the Israeli military to kill Palestinians, saying, “I plan, after I graduate, on joining the Israel Defense Forces to eliminate Palestinian nationalism and Palestinians from the world.” After making the statement, the student suddenly fled the room, leaving other students worried for their physical safety. This threat proved to be the beginning of constant harassment that Palestinian students and other allies faced. As an example, one Palestinian student who spoke during public comment reported being spit on while giving a campus wide tour and was cautioned by friends against walking on campus alone in the wake of the threats. Another student, who identified as Black and Muslim, was accosted by a sympathizer of the anti-Palestinian censorship resolution who termed him a “terrorist sympathizer” and was later followed when he attempted to go to mosque on a Friday.
Overall, numerous students reported fearing for their safety and going out of their way to establish impromptu systems to protect each other, including creating escort systems, taking time and energy that would have been better spent devoted to their studies. CAIR-SFBA and its allies worked with impacted and targeted students who devoted countless hours in the aftermath of the censorship campaign to meeting with administrators. During these meetings, students explained the way the repression had disrupted their education and described the support they needed from administrators. CAIR-SFBA continues working with student groups such as BFP in holding UCB accountable for ensuring institutional representation of Palestinian and Muslim students, mandating training on Islamophobia for students and staff, and public condemnation of the Canary Mission blacklist as a threat to student safety, freedom of speech, and academic freedom.
In another incident involving academic curricula, CAIR-LA was contacted by a community member about an Islamophobic course being taught at California State University San Bernardino’s (“CSUSB”) satellite Palm Desert campus through a third-party organization called the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (“OLLI”). The course, titled “History of Islam: Mohammed to ISIS,” was taught by a Mr. Edward Kodinsky on the university’s campus through OLLI. According to his biography, Mr. Kodinsky earned degrees in the State Scientific and Research Institute of Metal Processing and possessed no academic background in history, Islam, or the Middle East.58
In a slideshow from one of his lectures, Mr. Kodinsky claimed that Arabs are not moral people and that ‘lying and cheating’ are commonplace among Arabs because Arabs are all about ‘exploiting possibilities.’ Moreover, the class material portrayed the Prophet Muhammad as a militant man who founded a religion of violence where peace was made with communities as a strategic move to accomplish world domination. CAIR-LA, in a letter, immediately demanded the cancellation of the remaining classes in the course as well as a public apology.59
In response to the pressure, CSUSB was forced to suspend the course and the instructor permanently while also pledging that such Islamophobic content would not be offered in the future. CSUSB also implemented new policies to review third-party courses taught on its campuses to prevent approval of Islamophobic courses and instructors by mandating reviews firstly by the Dean of the Palm Desert Campus and ensuring a second round of review for courses that purport to be academic. The second-round review of academic courses will be conducted with the Dean in consultation with the appropriate Department Chair to make sure it meets academic standards.
CAIR-CA is committed to ensuring that academic discourse and university curricula across California do not veer into Islamophobia and the tarnishing of Islam as an intolerant, anti-Semitic, predatory and expansionist faith.