Priya Canzius '20
The last time I cried was on October 10, 2017. It was also the first time that someone questioned whether or not I was American. Buckle up, readers, because if you haven’t yet experienced racism and Islamophobia, you’re about to.
That afternoon, I had gone to the Scripps Hampton Room, intending to listen to Muslim rights activist Hussam Ayloush speak about CAIR-LA (Council on American-Islamic Relations), a group Scripps promoted as a “grassroots civil rights organization [of which Ayloush is Executive Director] that has worked with the Greater Los Angeles Area Muslim community...for more than two decades”. According to CAIR’s website, the organization’s mission statement is to “enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.”
Looking forward to the Director’s talk, I sat in the back of the room with other Scripps students and some people from the greater Claremont community.
The talk itself was fairly typical. My fellow Scripps students and I noticed early on that a white man -- not affiliated with Scripps -- was trying to engage with Ayloush as he was presenting. Ayloush pointed out that American culture has been driven by biases and prejudice, and that there have always been criteria in deciding what constitutes a “true” American or a “new” American. He explained to the audience that we all share land together, and we therefore share a future together. After being periodically interrupted by the first man and several other irate audience members, Ayloush stated that no one should feel the need to convince others of their humanity, but that it is the responsibility of the people who need to be convinced to do their own research.
The man who interrupted originally interrupted once more. He started his phrase with “you people”, referencing Muslims.
I was rolling my eyes while they spoke, because, well, men. But then the inexcusable happened. Just after Ayloush finished his presentation, one of the men raised his hands and asked, “what’s your stance on suicide bombings?” Ayloush, who clearly (and unfortunately) had heard this before, responded, “what’s yours?”
Hell, which had been, quite frankly, toeing the line up to that point, broke loose. The man started screaming that because Ayloush wouldn’t respond to the question, it meant he was pro-suicide bombing. Which, in this heckler’s mind, seemed to mean that all Muslims were now pro-suicide bombing. When Ayloush responded that he was, in fact, not pro-suicide bombing, the man asked, “doesn’t the Qur’an promote lying to the infidel?”
We all realized at that point that there was no winning or losing this argument, because it was based on ignorance. Professors tried to intervene. Had he been the only one stirring agitation in the room, maybe they could have. But people to my right were protesting that this heckler had a right to speak, a man behind me was explaining to us how we were being “brainwashed” by this speaker and by Scripps, and people in front of me were aghast.
Another man started angrily shouting about how hate crimes committed against Jewish people are all committed by Muslims (untrue), and had brought along a few lines from the Qur’an to “aid” his argument. Ayloush tried to explain that one cannot understand the Qur’an without context, and how both the Bible and the Qur’an could be interpreted in many ways; he explained to us that groups like ISIS and the KKK can rise out of those interpretations. Someone yelled back, “We’re not talking about the KKK!”
Hell, which had already broken loose, was somehow punishing Scripps students by dropping a few of its whiter inhabitants into the Hampton Room. CAIR is no stranger to controversy and public defamation -- their website features an entire page devoted to “Dispelling Rumors About CAIR,” stating that “because of CAIR's high profile and very public record of principled advocacy of civil liberties, interfaith relations and justice for all people, a small but vocal group of anti-Muslim bigots has made CAIR the focus of their misinformation campaign.” This “vocal group” seems to have found its way to Claremont, despite the best efforts of event organizers. Assistant Professor of Politics, Sumita Pahwa, challenged the protestors by explaining that Muslims, in general, have a lower tolerance for suicide bombings than any other religious group, according to a study from PEW Research Center. One of the men
(later identified as anti-Muslim blogger Arthur Schaper) gasped and said, “so you mean to say that some Muslims do support suicide bombings?” To this man, “fewer” Muslims is enough to label an entire religion as, somehow, more violent than others.
At this point, we were all at a loss. People were leaving, people were shouting, and people were stunned. I honestly can’t remember what else was talked about, but you’re correct if you think it was hurtful and ignorant. It was at this point that I started crying.
The talk was over. I walked out, and noticed that some of my peers were crying as well. And then the hecklers came outside and started interacting with us. Schaper followed and berated audience members as they left the Hampton Room, recording their reactions in a 15-minute-long video that was later uploaded to YouTube. Some students stayed behind to challenge his statements about terrorism and Islamic law, but were shouted down by Schaper and his associates. Protesters surrounded and cornered audience members outside, arguing that islamophobia does not exist, and that Christians and Jewish people are the real victims of prejudice. They questioned why we were fighting for Muslims here, when “good Christians” were being killed every day in Muslim countries. “Where is the publicity was for that?”, a Latino man asked us.
I, fool that I am, responded, “Why don’t you do something to fight for them, and we’ll fight for Muslims in this country?” The man stopped, looked right at me, and responded, “Because this is my country”. He looked me right in the eye and asked, “is it yours?”
I was floored. I was goddamn floored. For any of you who don’t know the answer, yes, it is. I can’t tell if this man was questioning me because of what I said, because I’m brown, or because I’m brown and there was no way for him to tell whether or not I am a Muslim. (I’m not, but that should not matter).
So I left. I left, I cried, and I became so, so angry about the state of our world. I’m angry because I’m sure that Hussam Ayloush gets heckled every day because of his job, his religion, and his race. I’m angry that Muslims in general have to deal with this hatred so regularly. I’m angry that people feel so comfortable in their stereotypical American-ness that they feel entitled to intimidate and threaten and manufacture blatant mistruths at will. I’m angry that this happened, and I’m angry that not everyone was crying. I don’t know what the takeaway is from this, but I do know that we need to consciously include and support all members of our community, especially those who are most vulnerable to acts of hatred.
Like Ayloush said, if we share this land, we’re going to share the future. And here, at the Claremont Colleges, it’s our responsibility to help protect that future. I only hope that one day, when someone asks, “Is America really your country?” anyone of any race or religion will feel able to say “Yes” with as much certainty as I did, or more.