Commentary | How much does a promise cost?

Turning Islamophobic violence into strength.

As an Arab Muslim woman, I expected to run into some issues at an elite settler-colonial institution like McGill. However, I could never have imagined just how much bigotry, racism, and sexism ebbs and flows in the institution. I am in my first year at McGill and I can confidently and truthfully say this: McGill is not an academic institution that cares about its students. From a very young age, I accepted the fact that I will never fully feel like I belong in a classroom. This feeling of isolation and alienation is one that I am familiar with, and it is deepened because of my religion, race, and gender. This was partly the reason why I decided to double major in African Studies and World Islamic and Middle East Studies. After all, how can I not belong in an academic field that overlaps with my own identity? Taking a class in the Islamic Studies department was the worst decision I have ever made. My expectations for this specific class were very low, I was very apprehensive about the Islamic Studies department in an institution like McGill. However, I decided to give it a chance. I​ ​naively​ ​believed​ ​that​ ​McGill​ ​would​ ​protect​ ​me​ ​and​ ​provide​ ​me​ ​with​ ​safe spaces.​ ​That​ ​was​ ​the​ ​first​ ​lie​ ​I​ ​believed.

Personally, this class has always made me tense. I assumed that a class in the Islamic Studies department would be diverse; however, upon seeing that the majority of students were white, I felt like it would be easy for the information to take on a propagandic nature or an Islamophobic turn. (This is not to condemn non-Muslim or non-minority people who take ISLA classes — I believe they prevent people from being ostensibly arrogant and naïve in the twisted mainstream interpretations regarding Islam.) I allowed myself to become very critical of the statements made by the professor; such as: “ISIS does not invent any Quranic verses or hadiths,” which undoubtedly implies that Islam is compatible with terrorism. That is when I decided to discuss my discomfort with the teacher. I voiced my concerns to him and he seemed very eager to take in my criticism. He claimed that he had given adequate warnings about Islamophobia, but given my concerns he promised to address Islamophobia more frequently. Three days later, in Quebec City, six of my Muslim brothers were killed in an Islamophobic terrorist attack.

As a response to the tragedy, the professor walked in, poised and grinning, and suggested enthusiastically that we take a moment of silence for the innocent lives lost. After the moment passed, he sparked a debate in which we began to argue with a hypothetical Islamophobic uncle. As soon as he uttered these words, the charismatic, charming, grinning professor was eclipsed by an unruffled man who used the tragedy as a platform to express any students’ internalized and/or externalized Islamophobia, instead of using it as a platform to incite change. Of course, this is wrong for many reasons, all of which I will address soon. However, during this debate, he repeatedly interrupted me (a visibly Muslim woman) and did not give me enough time to properly articulate any of my thoughts. A friend of mine in the class decided to send a personal email to the professor the night of the lecture to explain her discomfort with both the timing and framing of the debate. In his trademark boundary-less approach, he decided to respond to her by sending an email to both her and myself, even though I did not email him regarding this issue. He asked us if we would be available after the next class to discuss the issue of Islamophobia, and invited us to voice our concerns (Keep in mind that I had already voiced my concerns to him, and despite his promise that he would address them, he still decided to undertake an offensive debate). I accepted his offer to meet with him – after all, who was I to deny a man his right to redemption?

On the day of our scheduled meeting, the professor brought up the personal email that my friend privately wrote to him. He asked the students if anyone else thought the debate was offensive, to which a student bravely declared that it is inappropriate to have a forum in which he expects students to raise their hand at that question. He dismissed her comment and said that he still thinks it would be useful to open up the discussion, after which, I raised my hand and voiced my discomfort. I explained that it was not so much the nature of the debate that was the issue, but rather the timing. I felt like framing Islamophobia as a debate with a fictional ‘Islamophobic uncle’ was demeaning to the tragedy that had transpired a few days prior. I did not believe it was appropriate to expect students to reason with an Islamophobe and provide arguments to refute Islamophobia, especially in light of recent events. I explained that if there was an argument that could stop Islamophobes from being ignorant, then there would be no Islamophobia. I stated that although I didn’t doubt that the professor’s intentions were genuine, the ends were not – in trying to challenge Islamophobia, he created a platform for it. I expressed my discomfort in having to rationalize with a fictional Islamophobic uncle, who isn’t actually fictional. Islamophobes a reality that many Muslims must face. I didn’t (and still don’t) understand why we were expected to exclusively discuss it within hypothetical, academic contexts.

Despite clearly voicing this, some fellow classmates, who are non-Muslim, took it upon themselves to state that the debate was “needed” and “necessary” especially after a terrorist attack. They made statements such as “I’m going to speak on behalf of the province of Quebec” (disregarding that I, myself, was born and raised here and this is as much my province as it is theirs). One particular female student tried to excuse the terrorist’s wilful ignorance by saying that Quebec city is “homo-Quebecus” (a direct quote)– which is not truthful (unless she has taken it upon herself to discuss “alternative facts”). Statements like these exclude the entire Muslim community of Quebec as well as other minority groups, because they are implying that my fellow minorities aren’t really ‘Quebecois.’ The environment was hostile and deplorable – it had an overall effect of “us versus them.” In this case, the ‘us’ refers to me and those who spoke up against the debate during the class. My white, privileged classmates, who have never faced the consequences of Islamophobia or racism, raised their hands in response to the question of whether they thought the debate was effective. The professor tried to use this as an opportunity to close the debate once and for all. Halfway through his monologue, I ended up walking out of the class. Two other students did as well.

The environment in the class was extremely hostile and uncomfortable. The professor continuously disregarded Muslim women’s feelings and, instead, relied on white women in the classroom. He repeatedly interrupted me; however, when a white classmate defended our position (though, it’s not just a position – it’s our safety, our dignity, our worth, and our lives) and simply reiterated my and other Muslim women’s arguments, the professor gave her his full attention and validation. When I dared assert my right to speak freely, and spoke over anyone who tried to interrupt me, the professor unflinchingly asked me not to interrupt anyone – even though he gave me the platform to speak when he called on my raised hand, and let himself and the students freely and repeatedly interrupt me. He validated white women’s opinions and thoughts over Muslim women’s blatant discomfort. We were made subordinate and unimportant. He did not provide Muslim women a platform to express our concerns, nor did he allocate us enough time to do so. Ironically, the professor likes to promote his class as being a safe space for everyone (and I truly believe that he means that); but this sense of safety seemed to be exclusively allocated to non-Muslim students. If he truly cared about the discomfort of his students, as he has often stated, he would have waited for our scheduled meeting. However, I think we can logically deduce that he does not care about how his students feel. He has proven himself to be inept at handling difficult situations, though I still cannot understand how difficult it is to be respectful and mindful of marginalised people’s concerns.

Despite feeling continuously attacked in the classroom by both the students and the professor, I still decided to scream my voice hoarse until someone listens. Student journalism is the only venue available to me at McGill that allows me to voice my concerns. The institution has provided me with no other (effective) resources to express my grievances. McGill seemingly condemns violence against Muslims, but will allow Muslim women to feel unsafe and marginalized in the classroom. Muslims don’t need token pity. We need action. We need promises that will not be broken. The true violence was not in the debate itself, but in his (and my fellow classmates) inability to recognize the act as being inappropriate or provide a shift in attitude through empathetic understanding. Everyone who participates in this oppressive social order is complicit in it. However, given that the “sweeping majority” (his words, not mine) of them were Caucasian – they were unable to recognize their privilege. The fact that they weren’t offended by the debate proves that they ostensibly ignore and deny the fact that they have the privilege and the luxury not to be offended. The classroom depicted the world as an easy fix, to be solved by enthusiasm and academic debates.

I am tired of having to walk the streets of my city, nervous and afraid. I am tired of feeling like everyday needs to be a battle, in which I must both protect myself and defend everything I represent. I am tired of feeling like I don’t belong in an academic institution that continues to boast about its diversity and acceptance. I am tired of taking classes where I can (finally) feel like I relate to the material on a fundamental level, only to find students trying to quench their white guilt and using marginalized people as a venue through which they can exempt themselves from any responsibility. I am tired of having people call upon my tolerance and demand I be lenient in the face of violent behavior. I am tired of feeling guilty for being angry, and feeling responsible for people’s conscious decision to remain ignorant and violent. I am tired of feeling irredeemably broken and fragmented. I am tired and I am only 19 years old.

I am not only holding accountable the students who have contributed to Muslim women’s feelings of discomfort in the classroom; I am also holding accountable the professor who made it possible for Muslim women to feel unsafe and uncomfortable in what is supposed to be a safe space; I am also holding the Islamic Studies department accountable for choosing to turn a blind eye to ongoing violent behavior; I am holding accountable the institution of McGill, which has just made it clear that the comfort of their students is not a priority, if even a concern; I am also holding accountable the reader of this article. You have a duty to stand up for what is right, you have a duty to prevent the further marginalization of minorities in the classroom. You have a duty to be human and to treat others as such.

Upon coming to North America, my people were promised freedom. Upon coming to this land, we were promised rights. Upon coming to Canada, we were promised peace. Upon coming to Quebec, we were promised acceptance. Upon coming to Montreal, we were promised multiculturalism. Upon coming to McGill, we were promised safety. These are promises that have all been broken; and with it, so have the spirits of my beloved minorities. The price of a broken promise is the dreams of all the students who have ever felt unsafe within the walls of McGill.


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