Gauchos of Islamic faith and/or Middle Eastern descent open up about effects of DHS Program and international events

A student sports her hijab while writing. According to Ph.D. student Shyam Sriram, Muslim extremists are not the only group to radicalize religous texts and Muslims should not be held responsible for a minority in their faith. Courtesy of Pat Dollard

A student sports her hijab while writing. According to Ph.D. student Shyam Sriram, Muslim extremists are not the only group to radicalize religous texts and Muslims should not be held responsible for a minority in their faith. Courtesy of Pat Dollard

Though the devastating international tragedies associated with Islam dominating the news cycle for the past year seem a world away, public perceptions of those events have hit home for many Muslim and Middle Eastern students on campus.

Three days after President Barack Obama gave a speech at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, the Muslim Students Association (MSA) West, which represents Muslim students from 27 universities, including all nine undergraduate UCs, issued a statement of condemnation of the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program on the grounds that it “solely targets and stigmatizes the Muslim community.”

“The sentiments of fear and feeling unsafe are reverberating throughout the Muslim community already, and through CVE, the federal government is undermining the concerns of Muslims in America and further perpetuating tensions and a hostile environment for Muslims,” the press release states.

Political science professor John Woolley said he interpreted Obama’s speech on Countering Violent Extremism as an attempt to cope exclusively with threats from Islamic groups.

“The justification I heard was that we needed programs targeted at young Muslims that might be exposed to radicalism at their mosques,” Woolley said, “and we needed to send some kind of countervailing message.”

The Department of Homeland Security’s CVE Training Guidance pamphlet states that the program “should focus on behavior, not appearance or membership in particular ethnic and religious communities.” Additionally, the pamphlet stresses the importance of refraining from conducting “training that equates religious expression, protests, or other constitutionally protected activity with criminal activity,” when implementing CVE policy.

President Obama Speaks at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. Photo courtesy of the White House.

President Obama Speaks at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. Photo courtesy of the White House.

Muslim Student Association President and fourth-year biochemistry major Yasmin Sallak expressed doubt about CVE’s ability to protect citizens’ rights and said the program suspects Muslim youth becoming active in their community as potential terrorists by depending on profiling to find allegedly suspicious individuals.

“The policy itself is profiling because the program is being implemented in three cities, particularly the Muslim community in those cities,” Sallak said.

According to fourth-year electrical engineering major and MSA member Omar Jishi, the program was first implemented in New York and, from there, spread across the nation.

“The NYPD used to do surveillance in mosques, and with the advent of ISIS and people joining up, it’s become a national program,” Jishi said. “This is handled by a federal department now rather than New York.”

According to Sallak, putting these programs in mosques wrongfully suggests that individuals who turn to extremism come from Muslim communities.

“I feel extremists can come from anywhere, from any background,” Sallak said.

Ph.D. student in political science and government Shyam Sriram said the CVE program is also problematic because it ignores other extremist groups that should be classified as terrorists.

“There are so many subversive extremist groups in the United States that have nothing to do with Islam, but I feel like we focus so much about that, we leave out these crazies,” Sriram said. “These nut jobs that live outside the grid and want to bring down the government. ”

Imagine going to a place you consider a sanctuary, and you don’t know if the person next to you can rat you out for anything you say, whether you say it as a joke or not. – MSA member Omar Jishi

Jishi said the program additionally creates paranoia and distrust among Muslim community members.

“Imagine going to a place you consider a sanctuary, and you don’t know if the person next to you can rat you out for anything you say, whether you say it as a joke or not. It doesn’t matter what you say, you lose the trust of the community because every other person could be a mole,” Jishi said. ”That’s not something that should exist in a community center.”

According to religious studies professor Juan Campo, reaction toward the CVE program “forms part of a whole paranoid vision of threats to our society.” Woolley agreed and said the national security policy emphasizes potential threats from the Muslim community in a disproportionate and misguided manner.

“There’s a problem of extremist violence beyond the groups ISIS is targeting for recruitment, but this has largely gone unaddressed,” Woolley said.

Sallak said the CVE program could mistakenly classify her as a potential terrorist and that those kinds of possibilities can engender mistrust toward Muslims in their respective communities.

“I consider myself very active in the Muslim community, and with that type of correlation I could be seen as a potential extremist, which makes no sense to me,” Sallak said. “It makes people lose trust in their community, people will stop going to their local mosques, and I don’t think we really want that.”

Truly Understanding the American Muslim Community

According to Campo, many Americans do not expect other historically radical groups to apologize for their actions or the actions of extremist minority factions within other religions.

“Nobody judges all of Christianity, or expects Christians to apologize for the KKK,” Campo said. “I think the MSA [Muslim Student Association] feels about as removed from the Islamic State as most Christians do from the KKK.”

Sriram said he hopes students and Americans view the differences between Muslims and ISIL similarly to the differences between Christians and the KKK.

“Just as people are unhappy when white supremacists, KKK [and] other hate groups, subvert Christianity, I wish people would be as incredulous about ISIS as they are towards those groups,” Sriram said. “It’s ridiculous, there is nothing Muslim about ISIS.”

According to Sriram, ISIL is wrongly perceived to be a manifestation of Islamic beliefs when in actuality its practices do not adhere to practices condoned and encouraged by Islam.

“The people in ISIS don’t read Koran, they don’t pray, there’s nothing Muslim about them,” Sriram said. “This is like they’ve invented their own faith. ISIS hates everyone … they can claim to be Islamic or whatever they want, but it’s just a PR move.”

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Jishi said federal programs such as the Department of Homeland Security’s CVE will not stop violent extremism and that the most effective solution to addressing the issue would be to coordinate with Muslim communities.

“There are structures within the Muslim community itself to do that, countering that rare spread,” Jishi said. “When you put it in the hands of the federal government you spread distrust within the community, between one member and another.”

UCSB College Republicans President and fourth-year political science and biopsychology double major Alice Gilbert said the CVE program confuses the distinction between “countering extreme violence and countering extreme opinion.”

“The Countering Violent Extremism program risks blurring the line between the two, resulting in potential profiling and infringements on the Fourth Amendment rights of American citizens,” Gilbert said.

According to Woolley, it is crucial for Muslims and other citizens to speak out against programs that are harmful to them.

“It’s important for politics in this country that we hear from people who are negatively affected by policy,” Woolley said. “This is an issue that we need young people to speak up about.”

Third-year economics and accounting major Altamash Azam said the Muslim community needs to work with the U.S. government to change the commonly-held perception that Muslims are “the enemy.”

“Muslims are Americans, too!” Azam said. “That is a point that many people forget when discussing these sorts of issues. Muslims cannot be seen as the enemy because we are not the enemy. Pointing to Islam as the problem alienates an entire community that can be the catalyst that ensures the safety of this country.”

According to Sriram, the best thing people can do to educate themselves about Islam is not to turn to traditional American media but rather to speak to American Muslims about their faith, practices and culture.

“Part of the things people could do is educate themselves. I’m not saying go online and look up everything about Islam — actually meet Muslim people,” Sriram said. “If people want to learn about Islam and they want to learn about Muslims, they should maybe come to a Muslim Student Association meeting.”

According to Sriram, there are Muslim undergraduate and graduate students as well as a Muslim Student Association on campus that all individuals can reach out to in order to genuinely learn about Islam.

“Go out of you way to learn something about Islam, to learn about Muslims from the actual adherents of the faith,” Sriram said. “We don’t proselytize. In fact it says in the Koran there should be no compulsion of faith.”

Mainstream American Media Targets Islam

Students and professors agree that mainstream American media holds some responsibility for creating a stigma associated with Islam that has adversely impacted Muslim Americans.

According to MSA advisor and Ph.D. student in religious studies Brendan Newlon, Western conservative media outlets and extremist fringe groups like ISIL are both promoting the same extremist “Clash of Civilizations” ideology, and both do so by trying to sell the American public the same radical view of Islam.

“They use polarizing rhetoric and claim that ‘Islam’ is at war with ‘the West,’ and offer this as justification for ‘inevitable’ conflict,” Newlon said. “This is producing the majority of the violence we see abroad, by all parties, as well as the Islamophobic violence that has been increasing at an alarming rate in the U.S. and Europe.”

According to Sallak, the media manipulates interview questions in ways that wrongfully make individual Muslims representative of a diverse and nuanced religion.

It is the duty of the Western press to educate the public and make sure they understand that this group has nothing to do with the religion of Muslims, even if they want to call themselves Islamist. – Politics and communication professor Laurie Freeman

“With everything happening in the news, and just the way the media portrays Muslims, the questions I’m asked about what Islam really means are kind of structured in a way that the media portrays them,” Sallak said. “What do Muslims believe about violence? What do Muslims believe about ISIS? Do you support ISIS?’ Things like that.”

Politics and communication professor Laurie Freeman said media has a responsibility to differentiate the actions of ISIL with the religion of Islam, but Western media traditionally fails to do so.

“It is the duty of the Western press to educate the public and make sure they understand that this group has nothing to do with the religion of Muslims, even if they want to call themselves Islamist,” Freeman said.

Fourth-year political science major Zeina Rousan expressed frustration over an instance in which a FOX News “Terror Expert” falsely claimed on live television that there are entire European cities that are “totally Muslim” where non-Muslims are simply not allowed.

“That’s so fucked up — It’s so fucked up!” Rousan said. “I don’t even know how people feel they have the authority to make such statements without doing their proper research, or having some semblance of humanity.”

According to Newlon, international tragedies involving Muslims “harm American Muslims twice.”

“We grieve with the international community and the families of victims whenever innocent people lose their lives to acts of violence,” Newlon said. “We face misplaced hatred and violence as a religious community because popular media associates violent acts with us and our religion.”

We need to prove to people that what is shown on TV is not by any means an accurate image of Islam and Muslims. – Haya Barakat, cousin of North Carolina shooting victim Deah Barakat

According to the North Carolina shooting victim Deah Barakat’s cousin Haya Barakat, the biggest problem with mainstream American media is that it conventionally focuses on violent extremist groups like ISIL and Al Qaeda and misleads the American public to view all Muslims as terrorists.

“The fact that it took a day and a half for it to make just a few news channels was really upsetting,” Barakat said. “It went viral on social media and that’s how a lot of people found out about it, but the news coverage was very minimal. We need to prove to people that what is shown on TV is not by any means an accurate image of Islam and Muslims.”

According to Newlon, the conservative media makes Islamophobic comments that cause extremists in the West to direct hate and violence against Muslims.

“That’s the best source of propaganda for ISIS and it fuels anti-Western sentiment overseas,” Newlon said.

Second-year biochemistry major Rawan Sultan said in an email that Islamophobia exists because people are not knowledgeable about the religion and associate it with the violence ISIS causes.

“The Quran, and our religion, is all about peace, not the opposite,” Sultan said. “I just feel like it is not fair that people expect Muslims to apologize for the actions of extremists, since we obviously do not agree with any of their actions. We are human beings too, just like everyone else and we do not agree at all with the horrendous acts of the extremists.”

According to Azam, it is vital American media outlets work closely with Muslim communities throughout the U.S. to suppress the high level of Islamophobia.

“The greatest issue is that the public is not fully informed,”Azam said. “The truth is that there is an estimated 5-8 million Muslims in America. If you don’t personally know a Muslim, than chances are you know very little of their beliefs. What you see on TV becomes your perception of what a Muslim is. By partnering up with the media. Muslim Americans can show what their religion truly is: a religion of love, compassion, selflessness, forgiveness and many more qualities.”

Islamophobia and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Killings

UC Riverside first-year Haya Barakat said the deaths of three Muslim students over an alleged parking dispute at North Carolina University has left the Muslim community shaken and conflicted, and she does understand how people could view the shooting as anything but a hate crime.

“I cannot understand how someone could have so much hatred in their heart to kill three innocent people execution-style. It’s incomprehensible to me that they were shot in the head allegedly over a ‘parking dispute,’” Barakat said. “You don’t shoot three people in the head execution-style over a parking space, you shoot because you have a hate-filled heart.”

Sultan agreed and said he and many other Americans and American Muslims believe the murders were a hate crime.

“I truly believe that it was a hate crime,” Sultan said. “Even if they did have a dispute over a ‘parking dispute’ it definitely should not have been resolved with killing three innocent lives execution. The man clearly killed the young three students because they were Muslim. No one should ever be murdered over a little disagreement on an issue.”

Sallak said that she deeply empathizes with the victims and that the murders make her feel vulnerable.

“Personally I felt like this crime hit home the most to me because these were three Muslim Americans, and I grew up as a Muslim American as well,” Sallak said.

“It made it seem like something like that could happen to me, and I feel like all of MSA felt the same way.”

According to Sallak, the Muslim community has been anxious since the events of 9/11 and the recent Department of Homeland Security CVE policy has only exacerbated that anxiety.

“We kind of feel nervous, like this is what we’ve been afraid of since after Sept. 11th, all of this hate speech going on in the media vilifying Muslims,” Sallak said. “It dehumanizes us and makes us targets, and this made that fear real.”

Barakat said Islamophobia gets worse with every negative news coverage of Muslim actions.

“It seems like the attitudes towards American Muslims get worse when anything comes up in news pertaining to a negative action that was committed by Muslims,” Barakat said. “Many people remain respectful for the most part, but discrimination is always occurring.”

According to Barakat, Americans and citizens around the world must take it upon themselves to learn about Islam and see its true essence in order to prevent tragedies such as the University of North Carolina shooting to happen again.

“As Yusor and Razan’s father said during their funeral, we need to make sure this never happens again, to protect the children of the world,” Barakat said. “No parent should ever have to bury their children. These lives were taken too soon, but I think that they influenced so many lives because they lived extremely admirable lives.”

I grew up in Saudi Arabia and came here five years ago and I can’t recall any instance of racism against me. – Alumnus Khalid Ahmed

Sriram, who described an incident in which a Saudi Arabian student was harassed in Goleta simply for being a Muslim, said incidences of Islamophobia are not confined to far-off regions read about in the news but also occur in our own backyard.

“For a campus as educated as this and as diverse as this, it’s appalling to think that a Saudi student could be targeted for being from Saudi Arabia or for being Muslim to the point that he had to leave the country,” Sriram said.

Alumnus Khalid Ahmed, however, said his personal experiences in Santa Barbara stand in stark contrast to those of the Saudi student who was accosted in Goleta.

“I grew up in Saudi Arabia and came here five years ago and I can’t recall any instance of racism against me,” Ahmed said. “So that’s definitely a rare thing in Santa Barbara County.”

According to Sriram, the American national response to the University of North Carolina shootings would be very different if the shooter’s and victim’s ethnicities were switched.

“The irony is that if this happened in reverse people would lose their shit,” Sriram said. “If an American went to Saudi Arabia and was treated this way and had to come back, it would be an international incident.”

Newlon said he encourages students and all indivudals to stand up to ignorance and fight for the rights of the oppressed.

“The long-term solution is always the same,” Newlon said, “Whenever you hear someone demonize any group of human beings because of their race, nationality, religion, et cetera, voice your objection, oppose ignorance and bigotry with every resource you have, and stand up for the rights of the marginalized community.”

A version of this story appeared on page 3 of the Thursday, March 5, 2015 print issue of the Daily Nexus.