Muslim students express fear for their safety on campus following Islamophobic online reactions to flag removal

| Senior Social Media Editor
A brick path leads to a red and white brick building with a brown door. Trees flank the path.

Graham Chapel on the Danforth Campus. (Photo by Curran Neenan | Student Life)

Editor’s note: This story discusses Islamophobia and the toll of 9/11. We have listed resources for people directly affected by these topics at the end of this piece.

Muslim students have expressed fear for their safety and concern about the rise of Islamophobic rhetoric from strangers on social media and from their peers following the removal of 9/11 commemorative flags Saturday. 

After a video of Student Union Vice President of Finance senior Fadel Alkilani removing the flags made national headlines, several individuals circulated his personal information on social media and posted threats directed at both him and his family. The events also spurred an onslaught of Islamophobic messaging on social media targeting Alkilani and Muslim individuals. 

A Fox News article about the event accumulated more than 10,000 comments in a single day. Many of the comments included or encouraged physical threats to Alkilani and his family, and several published their personal information. Other articles from national and international news outlets similarly accrued violent threats and doxxing.

“I know myself and other Muslims on campus are genuinely afraid of being visibly or presumed to be Muslim on campus, where before we would be just shouting about going to prayers and just being very open about it,” junior Mahtab Chaudhry said Sunday. “I feel like at least in the weeks to come, people will be a lot more worried and think twice about that kind of expression.”

Chancellor Andrew Martin’s email to the Washington University community Sunday evening did not mention the Islamophobic language being used by students and community members nor the extensive threats being directed at Alkilani.

A coalition of students and student groups including Students for Black and Palestinian Liberation, WashU Students for Abolition and the WashU Middle Eastern and North African Association, released a statement hours later, saying that they were hurt by Martin’s failure to condemn Islamophobia and the way his email “erased the varied experiences of numerous populations of students (Black, Brown and Muslim) on this campus.”

The statement pointed to some specific fears among students on campus. 

“Many Muslim and Brown students, particularly those who are visibly identifiable either by their hijab, turbans, etc., do not feel safe on campus and are hesitant to attend classes tomorrow,” the statement said. “Many Muslim students have received threatening emails targeting them and Islam from individuals unaffiliated with the University.”

The two Sept. 11 posts from the @wustl_official Instagram account both received hundreds of comments within 24 hours. The majority came from individuals not affiliated with the University and attacked Alkilani and his actions, often using racist, Islamophobic and violent language and tropes. 

“Just being here at WashU, I never really thought I’d be as concerned for my safety as I am right now and for my Muslim peers, just because seeing all those comments under [WashU’s] post made me anxious,” said a student who requested anonymity out of concern for her safety. “To see that people hold those views still — I don’t really know what to think of it.”

“I was on YikYak [Saturday] and some of the things people said on there were really disturbing,” said a senior who asked to remain anonymous out of fear for her safety. “There was literally a post that said ‘Islamophobia should be allowed on 9/11.’ Someone in our community truly believes that,” she said, noting that the anonymous posts shown on YikYak are from within a five-mile radius of the user.

In addition to the comments on the University’s social media, unknown individuals created multiple Instagram accounts impersonating Alkilani, featuring posts with captions such as “Let me know how you feel about me in the comments!” that sparked Islamophobic sentiments from hundreds of individuals. 

On Twitter, especially after Alkilani’s name was tweeted by prominent right-wing media figures like Andy Ngo and Ann Coulter, thousands more users piled on with xenophobia and threats directed at both Alkilani and at Muslim individuals generally.

Although several University students urged their peers to report the social media accounts posting Alkilani’s personal information, social media platforms are notorious for slow, haphazard and uncertain enforcement of rules against doxxing and other hate speech — often spurred by conservative claims of censorship when hateful or harmful content is removed.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Islamophobic behaviors and messaging rose 1,617% from 2000 to 2001, according to the Pew Research Center. The Trump presidency sparked another surge, Pew found, as 75% of Muslim individuals surveyed in 2017 reported significant discrimination and a majority said that it was getting worse. 

“9/11 always is a scary day of the year just because there is increased Islamophobia,” said a student who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for their safety. “9/11 is just a reminder every year that Islamophobia still exists. It doesn’t leave us.”

Going forward, Chaudhry called for increased peer support for Muslim students.

“A lot more people need to be vocal and actually stand up, because right now it’s just a lot of things happening on social media and not a lot of support, at least from what I’m seeing,” she said. “Right now all you see is the Islamophobia and the hate and a student being called a terrorist, and [others] calling for Fadel to be sent back to his country and there’s nothing else there, which is just disheartening to see.”

The Muslim Wellness Foundation’s Community Trauma Toolkit offers resources and advice for coping with grief, trauma and microaggressions.

Naseeha is a helpline for Muslim youth to receive immediate, anonymous and confidential support by phone call or text to 1-866-627-3342 from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. CST every day.

Tuesday’s Children is an organization that supports communities recovering from large-scale tragedies and mass violence, including those grieving 9/11 victims and responders.

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