Islamophobia and anti-semitism at Mac

Christina Vietinghoff
February 26, 2015
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 6 minutes

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Canadian universities are supposed to be diverse and inclusive.

But just a few weeks ago at Ryerson University, a student union vice-president candidate had his poster defaced with “ISIS for life” scribbled across.

This incident of religious discrimination is just one among many across North America, like Swastikas sprayed outside Jewish fraternity houses and shootings of Muslim students near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It’s easy to be apathetic about these events as they seem to pass quickly through the news cycle, simply appearing as a blip on your Twitter feed, just another event happening over there, to other people.

But these events are symptomatic of a wider pattern of religious discrimination and xenophobia that also appears at McMaster. Although many of us may not even notice it, religious discrimination is embedded in our university.

The Silhouette talked to four students to better understand the lived reality of religious discrimination.

Although many of us take freedom from religious discrimination for granted, some students experience it so much that they almost become immune to it.

“As a Jewish person you kinda grow up used to it and you become immune to it,” said Sean Haber, a fourth-year student at McMaster and an active member of the Jewish community on campus.

“Thank god [anti-Semitism] here hasn’t reached the levels it has reached in Europe and some campuses in the states. There has been anti-Semitism on campus, in some ways it’s subtle, in some ways it’s a lack of the university trying to understand the needs of Jewish students,” said Haber.

This subtle discrimination is also a reality for Muslim students.

Sabeen Kazmi, a fourth-year student and active member of the Muslim community says up front personal discrimination is somewhat rare. “Overall generally in my day-to-day life, I don’t really feel like I’m being discriminated against because of my religion. For the most part people have been very interested in learning about me and my religion.”

Institutionalized discrimination

But religious discrimination does not only manifest in person-to-person interactions; it is also woven in to our academic system.

“On an academic level I’ve seen a lot of content that’s been oppressive in many ways. A lot of times professors will teach you things that are not okay. And you can tell right away they don’t have a training that allows them to be anti-oppressive,” explained Kazmi.

“The content, and materials and courseware can sometimes also be very limiting and restrictive, and you don’t really find your own ethnic group represented adequately in most course wares.”

Discrimination can also manifest in the form of not accommodating religious holidays.

“There are accommodations to deal with exams if exams fall on the Sabbath or on holidays. A lot of time that goes teacher by teacher. I can tell you I almost failed first year chem because my midterm was on a holiday and at first he was going to make me just fail it, and after fighting with him for a long time he let me put [that percentage] on the exam,” said Haber.

The problem is that students don’t always feel comfortable reporting this.

“Generally students would kinda be hesitant to go to someone from administration because they’re worried about how it will be handled or if they’ll face repercussions, so they’ll generally come to us and we’ll try to talk to administration, so it’s just important for us to keep those avenues open,” said Ammar Ahmed, President of the McMaster Muslim Students Association.

When asked whether she feels comfortable on campus, Hayley Goldfarb, a third-year student and member of the Jewish community said, “in general yes [I feel comfortable] but there have been specific instances where I definitely didn’t feel comfortable clearly identifying as Jewish on campus, whether that be wearing a Star of David or wearing a shirt with any kind of symbolism on it.”

There is also variation in tolerance and understanding based on faculty.

“From one faculty to the next there might be some differences, because in social science people are more aware of racial discrimination and gender based discrimination,” said Kazmi.

Systemic discrimination also manifests in terms of fewer food options.

“[Kosher food options] are not good at all. There are a few kosher snack options on campus, and bridges has a kosher salad bar,” said Haber.

But although these students say more overt discrimination is rare, McMaster has not been completely exempt.

Overt Discrimination

More intense anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have existed at McMaster, when triggered by specific events.

For instance, Kazmi, a peace activist, says in her role advocating for social change, people critique her because of her religion, rather than her ideas.

“That kind of hate has only happened when I’m in a very particular context at the university… For example, I would be called ignorant, ‘your people are barbaric and therefore I am barbaric too and I should just be thankful that I’m in Canada, and stop stirring up trouble.’ Those are very targeted in that they are talking about my identity as a Muslim and they are not criticizing what I’m advocating for.”

But Kazmi was quick to add that many activists face some kind of discrimination.

“This isn’t something that is unique to my experience as a Muslim woman. I think that most activists or people that are advocating for something out of the norm experience it too,” she said.

Discrimination being triggered by specific events or contexts is part of a wider pattern.

“A lot of anti-Israel action on campus will lead to the silencing bullying and harassment of Jewish students,” said Haber.

In particular, Jewish students experienced anti-Semitism in relation to the Boycott Divestment Sanction vote at last year’s MSU General Assembly.

“I received anti-Semitic messages because of my support for Israel, from strangers. One of them calling me Jewish scum or Zionist scum or something like that and it was all connected to the BDS vote,” said Haber. “That’s a pattern that you see not only at McMaster but at campuses around the world.”

Muslim students also face discrimination when advocating for peace.

“When I’m advocating for anti-war initiatives that’s when people have been really aggressive towards me, and I don’t know why, but somehow it just feels like when I turn on that identity of mine, I become a free target for all, to come and say whatever they want to me,” said Kazmi.

However, preventing discrimination does not mean that critical discussions cannot happen.

“You can criticize the government of Israel and criticize Zionism but it is not okay to criticize people simply because they are Jewish,” said Kazmi.

Fostering religious inclusion

Ultimately, students will need to feel empathy for their peers of different religious beliefs in order to foster a safer environmental for all.

Mac Hillel and the McMaster Muslim Student Association have already worked closely together to combat these issues.

“Hillel and the MSA have a great relationship, and that’s something that needs to go forward when combatting anti-Semitism and islamophobia,” said Haber.

In fact, Haber says there are many commonalities in religious discrimination.

“One of the reasons we’re targeted just in general is because we are different. We stick to our own customs and our own rules… We should be proud of how we make ourselves different and how we stick to whatever religious ideology we have,” said Haber.

The dynamic with interfaith collaboration can be positive and fulfilling.

“We do some work with Hillel, with P2C [Power to Change], and we’re having an event in about a week or so with the Atheist group. The thing is, when you’re working with groups everything is really good because everyone is on the same level ,and we all kind of get it and we like to discuss these topics,” said Ahmed.

“In general, as a student and as a member of society, it’s everyone’s responsibility to look out for everyone. So as a Jew I want to make sure all of my fellow students are comfortable whether that’s in their religion or political beliefs. So in the same way, even if you’re not Jewish, I hope that you would support those who are and hope that they feel comfortable,” said Goldfarb.

Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are not just minor problems; they are barriers to student success.

“For a student that is kind of facing this issue day in and day out it becomes a very suffocating environment for them. They can’t focus entirely on their academics anymore, they are more worried about these other things just because that environment is weighing down on them. It’s honestly a very serious concern if a student is going through that, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly,” said Ahmed.

Religious intolerance is not something you may expect to find at a university like McMaster. But as these students have shared, it is a reality many students do in fact face.

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