Islamic Awareness Week took place at UNCP from March 18 to March 21 as students gathered at events educating them on Muslim religion and celebrating the culture. Muslim Student Association hosted the pre-scheduled activities just days after the Christchurch mosque shooting in New Zealand on March 15 where 50 Muslims were killed in an act of terrorism.
The timing of Islamic Awareness Week prompted students and faculty to speak out about the implications of the shooting.
Students who participated got to see glimpses of how peaceful and beautiful Islamic culture can be, a core goal of MSA. That goal became even more important in light of the shooting. The accused shooter is a white man who made his motivations clear in his manifesto; he wanted to kill Muslim people just for being Muslim.
“It just puts into perspective how hateful people can be,” MSA president Sadira Bacchus said about the tragedy.
The earlier events in the week, the “Evil Spirits Stay Away” arts and crafts social on March 18, and the Arabic writing lesson the following day were lighter activities that helped keep students thinking positively. Students made bracelets with colorful beads and small decorative eyeballs that symbolize fighting off negative vibes in Islamic
culture, as MSA members told the religious stories behind them. At the Arabic writing lesson, Muslim students taught the guests how to pronounce and write letters in the Arabic alphabet and gave henna tattoos to students who wanted them free of charge.
Several students and faculty members had their names or other short phrases written on their arms as they all came together in a
show of religious unity.
“We’re out to promote religious unification [sic] with Muslims and non-Muslims,” Bacchus said. “We want to debunk any type of negativity with the Islamic religion because
it’s all about peace.”
The March 20 event, a tabling and poster signing event titled #WeStandWithNewZealand, helped Muslim students speak more candidly about how they feel about their people being targeted simply for practicing their religion.
“I watched the video… [of the shooting, posted on Facebook live] I started crying because I couldn’t believe that was happening
to my people.” senior Asil Abudayeh said.
Junior Yusuf Shah also viewed the video and expressed shock at what he saw.
“To see it, it lasts forever. You see the bodies crawling, you hear the screams that accompany the gunshots instead of just hearing about it and it’s even more terrifying,” Shah said.
Other students also weighed in, along with select faculty members. They largely pointed to United States President Donald Trump as a key reason why these attacks often happen.
“President Trump has literally inspired hate across
the world…Everything he stands for is the basis of white supremacy. It’s dividing us.” student Alexandria Hunter said.
“Our president needs to wake up and see that white supremacists are seeing him as a leader. He needs to step up and do the right thing and speak out against them. But I doubt he’s ever going to do that because that’s a big part of [the Republican] base.” Willis Glasgow, the campus photographer said.
#WeStandWithNewZealand drew several supporters who all signed on a poster condemning hate crimes against Muslim people. The support of the UNCP campus community as well as New Zealand’s quick action on gun control laws in response to the shooting is encouraging to the students going forward. Hunter believes the United States should follow this example and ban assault-style weapons the same way.
Even with all the support, the fact remains that Islamophobia is alive and still very real to the Muslim population. These are the people who have to deal with the discrimination and potential for being targeted on a daily basis just because of their religion. The risk of being a target factors into Abudayeh’s decision not to wear a hijab out in public.
“If I’m coming home from school late or I have to get gas or something I would get scared to be alone and out in public with a hijab. It would just make me feel more unsafe,” she said.
Even without the hijab, Abudayeh recognizes that the color of her skin and other Middle Eastern features could still mark her as a practicing Muslim, and therefore a target.
Shah is equally lowkey about his religion, despite being an African-American male and having fewer defining physical characteristics.
“It’s extremely terrifying in a way. Attacks like this make you want to be more to yourself and not really express your faith that much,” Shah said. There’s an irony in Muslims being the “attacked” instead of the “attackers” in the wake of the New Zealand shooting. Previous tragedies such as 9/11 where radical Islamic terrorist groups claimed responsibility for the deaths of Americans have framed Middle Eastern religions as divisive and evil for a long time. A side-effect of the Christchurch massacre is the way it has forced people in America to look at things from the other side.
“The way the media portrays us…Muslims are always the ones who are attackers and everyone else are innocent victims. This event kind of showed that terrorism has no race or religion. It’s sad that it took such a tragic event for that to happen, but I do think that more people see now that it’s not just one religion that’s doing all this,” Yaqot Nasser, another MSA member said. Despite this victimization, these Muslim students refuse to truly act like victims.
Shah, Nasser, Bacchus and Abudayeh all continue to practice their faith and lead MSA with the hope of helping students at UNCP become more tolerant and respectful of their religion. Nasser in particular rejects the idea of hiding her Muslim faith out of fear.
“If anything, this just empowers me to keep wearing my hijab. It makes me want to stick up for my beliefs even more. I’m not going to let something like this scare me away from what I know is right,” Nasser said.