Waiting for Action

The University still refuses to acknowledge Islamophobia on campus.

By Alex Shams

For the second time just this school year, an outside hate group has targeted the University of Chicago campus with posters denouncing members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) as “terrorists.” 

The group responsible for the attack—the David Horowitz Freedom Center—has taken credit for the posters, which it now puts up regularly on 10 campuses across the country in order to intimidate members of SJP into silence. The center has been labeled “a driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-black movements” and the “premier financier of radical anti-Muslim extremism” by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

In October, when the group put up the first round of posters, they identified students by name and even included sketches of faces that resembled “wanted” posters, implying advocating for Palestinian human rights made students criminals. This time, the posters accused the group of being backed by the militant group Hamas.

Even though this is the second attack against SJP this school year, it was only on Monday, after repeated SJP meetings with administration officials, that at long last a statement was released by the University expressing opposition to the flyers. 

This is a good start. The administration should be applauded for realizing the severity of the problem, but it isn’t enough. It fails to confront the perpetrators or to acknowledge that the problem is, by now, far bigger than posters.

For the last year, an online blacklist called Canary Mission has targeted members of SJP as well as the Muslim Students Association, both at UChicago and at schools across the country. The blacklist appears to be linked to David Horowitz—the October posters mentioned the site as proof of students’ “terrorist” connections. Canary Mission’s goals are very clear: slander students who advocate for Palestinian rights on college campuses and intimidate them into silence with vicious lies. The site is meant to target prospective employers by ruining students’ ability to get jobs in the future, and it tweets out accusations of terrorism and anti-Semitism to blacklisted students’ universities and employers. 

Given that the majority of students on the blacklist are of Palestinian or Muslim origin and that we live in a moment of unprecedented bigotry and prejudice against Muslims across the United States, the threat the blacklist poses is very serious. Canary Mission is nothing less than an attempt to prevent our future right to be employed by slandering us for our participation in student politics. It has been condemned as “McCarthyist” by over 1,000 faculty from across the country, but the University of Chicago has yet to comment. Meanwhile, I—and many of my classmates—frequently wake up to hateful tweets filled with death threats and hateful slurs.

Despite these violations of University policies about posters and disclosing students’ personal information, the administration has taken no steps to confronting the organization responsible—even though back in March, it set a precedent when a member of an outside hate group was arrested for posting hateful material on campus. In comments to The Maroon last year, David Horowitz said that the University should hold him personally responsible for the posters. So why haven’t they?

The administration should by now be aware of UChicago’s broader Islamophobia problem. Its recent campus climate survey revealed that nearly one out of three Muslim students report facing harassment because of their faith, and more than 40 percent said they had “avoided disclosing or concealed their religious identity due to fear of negative consequences or harassment from a peer,” the highest figures by far of any religious group. These figures should shock us and should be a wake-up call for the administration. 

In an era when mosques are being burned down across the United States week after week and where students who wear hijabs are spat on and yelled at every day across the city, shouldn’t confronting anti-Muslim bigotry be a priority? If the University is serious about protecting its students and employees, shouldn’t it address the David Horowitz Freedom Center and demand the group cease and desist from its repeated attacks on University students and employees?

Shockingly, the University’s priorities instead seem to be focused on silencing political speech on campus rather than helping those targeted actually exercise it. Next week, the Council of the University Senate will vote on changes to the University disciplinary system in what appears to be an attempt to increase potential pressure against students and employees who organize protests or interrupt events. More than 200 faculty, students, and alumni have signed a letter urging faculty to vote down the proposed reform, explaining that it “sets out to punish forms of speech, rather than fostering expression, in particular expressions of dissent that previous reports have declared essential to the University’s mission” and highlights that the “stakes…could not be greater.” The reform seems designed to dissuade students from protesting speakers associated with the Trump administration, as it follows on the heels of repeated student rallies opposing the invitation of members of his campaign and administration onto our campus.

David Horowitz is, fittingly, a close friend of Trump’s attorney general Jeff Sessions. His center even awarded its most prestigious award to Sessions, who has been blasted for his long history of supporting the denial of voting rights to black Americans and has been labeled a “champion of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant extremists” by the SPLC. 

The links are painfully obvious: The Trump administration is promoting policies targeting political dissent and promoting Islamophobia, giving a green light to purveyors of hate, like David Horowitz, to lash out against student activists across the country. 

The University of Chicago has a choice. Will it defend its targeted students by enforcing its own rules against defamation and hateful postering? Will it write a cease and desist letter to David Horowitz, demanding that he stop using our campus as a platform to peddle hate and bigotry?

Or will the administration instead ignore students’ demands and push ahead to increase restrictions on student activists? It took a year for a statement to be released. How much longer will we have to wait for real action?

Alex Shams is a second-year Ph.D. student in anthropology.