When Amira Mustafa saw the contents of an envelope addressed to the UNC Muslim Students Association on Sept. 18, she wasn't fazed — even though inside the envelope was a collection of small comic booklets espousing several negative stereotypes about Muslims.
But the specific ignorance caught her off guard.
The comics included angry imagery of camels and Muslims, as well as warnings about Islam's invasion into Western countries. One cartoon read, "If you say anything bad about 'Allah' or his prophet, Muhammad...some of them will try to hurt you."
Another cartoon strip read, "Here's how they invade today. First, they're peaceful, until they gain power — then look out! England is losing control and is closer to accepting Sharia* (sic) law."
“It's definitely an eye-opener because we go about our lives as any other student on this campus," MSA publicity chairperson Malak Harb said. "For us to receive things like that, it kind of makes us stop for a second and realize, you know what, there are people who see us as less than. They try to make it very clear to us that we are not like everyone else.”
Despite Arabs making up only a small portion of the Muslim population, Harb said the hate mail included cartoons both in English and poorly written Arabic. Although Harb said she has personally received hate messages regarding her religion on Facebook separate from her involvement with MSA, this hate mail was different in its cartoon nature.
The return address on the envelope was from a Las Vegas location. Due to its origin, Harb said the MSA has not reported the hate mail because it appears to be unrelated to the University community. She said the MSA wants to focus on more important organization goals.
But Harb and other MSA members said there’s been a rise in noticeable Islamophobia since the 2016 election, which manifests itself in small looks and interactions.
“A lot of times I just feel unwanted in a lot of places, even in the grocery store or something,” Mustafa said. “It's just very unwelcome stares, and I know a lot of people that experience things like this, so I know it's not in my head.”
Mustafa, MSA's community service chairperson, said she was unfazed by the hate mail because it was nothing new.
The hate mail arrived around a week before DEAH DAY (Directing Efforts and Honoring Deah and Yusor), a day that commemorates the lives of UNC dental student Deah Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha, two of the three Muslim victims killed in the 2015 Chapel Hill shooting considered by some to be a hate crime. Overall, though, Ahmad feels UNC is a relatively safe campus for Muslim students.
“I'd say it's safer than it would be at other areas where they're not as liberal as here,” Ahmad said. “Most people here are generally willing to listen, and it could change their minds, which is something nice about UNC.”
The UNC Clery Report, a compilation of University crime statistics, lists no reported hate crimes in the past three years. Despite UNC’s relative safety, Ahmad believes potential hate crimes go unreported due to the narrow definition of a hate crime and the need for explicit evidence of motive. She said microaggressions are much smaller and more frequent.
Harb believes sentiments of Islamaphobia were present before President Donald Trump came into office, but are now more openly expressed.
“People had these beliefs but they didn't share them,” Harb said. “But now, when you have a president who is very clear and vocal about his beliefs that not inspired but kind of gives other citizens permission to also voice their beliefs whether it's good or bad, but mostly bad.”
MSA outreach chairperson Safa Ahmed said she’s felt a change since the 2016 election even in what she called the "liberal bubble" in Chapel Hill.
“We'll have neighbors who are Trump supporters, people in class who are Trump supporters,” Ahmad said. “Maybe they aren't aggressive, but they still believe certain things, and you're like, how can you be sitting next to me in class believing what you believe about me? It takes away some of that safe space feeling, and it can't ever be completely eradicated in our environment now.”
More broadly, Mustafa acknowledges misconceptions held about Muslims, including the religion being one of violence and oppression. Although she said the hate mail was upsetting, she believes this reinforces the organization’s goal to get out in the community.
“I think we have a lot to work on as a nation,” Mustafa said. “People have a hard time accepting that Muslims can be American, too, and that a lot of us are, in fact, American. We were born here. We were raised here. This is kind of like the home we know, and it doesn't make us any less American just because we follow a different religion and way of life. I think people just need to start becoming more educated and reaching out to their community because we're kind of here to stay.”
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