The University: America’s Frontline Against Hate
By: Emran El-Badawi/Arab America Contributing Writer
America is angry. Over a decade of post-9/11 right-wing propaganda and years of Trump-style populism have taken a toll on us. And there is a litmus test to grade America’s anger problem—hate crimes. By 2016 hate crimes reached a five-year high after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). But it does not end there. By late 2017 hate crimes increased for another two consecutive years according to the FBI, with crimes against Muslims in particular “soaring.”
The perpetrators of anti-Muslim hate crimes—typically angry white men—have murdered, assaulted or terrorized groups they ‘perceive’ to be Muslim. This includes Americans of Christian-Arab and Sikh backgrounds. In academic circles, this is referred to as “racialized Islamophobia.” In layman’s terms, it refers to the attitude that all brown people are Muslim in appearance, so they are fair targets. This ignorant logic also equates Arabs and Muslims; and all this is to say little of hate crimes against African Americans, Jews, LGBT and other immigrant communities.
Hatred still lives in 2018, as I know personally. Earlier this month academic programs in Arabic, Middle Eastern Studies, African American Studies, History and Women’s Studies at the University of Houston were strategically vandalized. Office placards and various signs with Arabic writing or advertising foreign language courses were ripped off. Investigations are ongoing, but it does not take a genius to connect the dots.
In September of 2017—at the very start of the academic year—White Supremacist groups put up anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish and pro-white posters all over campus. Swastikas were placed over LGBT, feminist and immigrant event posters. Nearby universities in Houston, Austin, San Antonio and elsewhere in Texas were targeted as well. The same posters were seen posted at universities in New Jersey, Ohio and other campuses nationwide.
Back in Houston left wing and communist groups purporting to combat racism have been fighting back with their own flyers, even outing a handful of students as White Supremacist or Neo-Nazi sympathizers. Then it dawned on me, just how much of a battleground higher education—especially the arts and humanities—has become for our country. To say this differently America’s universities are its front line against hate. Let me explain.
There are three dimensions to understanding hate posters on campus:
First, universities are international melting pots by design. They are factories of human collaboration, where American born students socialize and form relationships with foreign students and immigrants. Through business, marriage, and friendship, a university education plays an integral role in contributing to America’s ethnic diversity (and economy!). And through the study of subjects like language, history, and gender students learn to be broad-minded, tolerant and welcoming of different cultures. This is all bad news for hate groups because it means the university makes America less homogenous—i.e. less ‘white.’
This brings me to my second point, the need for hate groups to recruit university students. The posters they put up and the ones they tear down are not an act of sloppy vandalism, but rather a well organized, neatly coordinated campaign to convert new souls. At some campuses, susceptible students might have to choose between America’s perpetual march towards diversity on the one hand, or “white nationalism” on the other. Across Texas, university campuses are too colorful for hate groups to recruit large numbers. Hateful posters scarcely make it through the day without being torn down and reported.
Third, and finally, is the social context of America today. Budget cuts to public education, arts, and humanities are nothing new. But what if such cuts are not always motivated by dollars and cents? When (typically Republican) politicians attack the liberal arts, condemn global and international studies and insist there is no value in learning a foreign language, could hate rather than economics sometimes play a part in their decision? Think about it.
President Trump proposed a budget in March of 2017 that would eliminate all funding (!) for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Even Congress found such wreckless cuts extreme (for now) and ignored the President’s budget. But where the big Trump fell short, the little Trumps are taking over. Before the end of 2017, the Texas Legislature cut Texas arts funding by 28 percent and they cut state education funding by 16 percent. By 2018 deep cuts to education were a staple of politics for largely ‘red’ states.
In today’s America, we may think of hate crimes as violent incidents perpetrated by criminals and thwarted by law enforcement. But this does not tell the whole story. Power is exerted through violence only as a last resort. Who then are the primary enablers of hate, and who are its everyday opposers? As far as Arabs, South Asians and Muslims are concerned, what if I shared with you that Islamophobia is an industry, organized and funded by right-wing political and corporate interests? What if I told you that hate is not natural to us but taught? What if I told you that it would not be possible for an angry young man to put up a hateful poster at a university campus without the deep contempt for the arts, humanities, and education in Austin or Washington? Think about it.
America is still angry—now what? I share with you the sentiment my university colleagues and I feel when we teach in Arabic. That sentiment is felt when we see our students—female, male, brown, black, white, gay, straight, Arab or otherwise—work together in the classroom, or at a class trip, or study abroad. It is a delicate but powerful optimism, a utopia in the real world. The majority of America’s students—millennials—are progressive, tolerant and global in their perspective. Our future is indebted to them, as well as their teachers and mentors.
On any given week, I am confronted—blessed—with opportunities to educate my students and the public about the Middle East, Arabic or Islam. In the next three months alone, I will be delivering talks for the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Asia Society of Texas, and area colleges. As Arab-Americans especially we have an obligation to actively educate others about who we are (and who we are not!). We also have an obligation to build bridges, stand up for justice and fight hate collectively.
Who then are the unsung heroes at the frontlines of the fight against hate? They are humanists. They are artists. They are educators. They are the women and men whom we take for granted every day. They are the ones who perform the thankless duty of defending our intellectual borders, training our kids to be citizens, and molding the future of America.
“Arise for the educator. Pay their debt in praise. For the educator may as well be an apostle!” – Arabic proverb
Dr. Emran El-Badawi is program director and associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Houston. He has contributed to Forbes, The Christian Science Monitor and made dozens of national as well as international media appearances, including for The New York Times, Al-Jazeera and Association Relative à la Télévision Européenne (ARTE). He can be found on Twitter: @EmranE