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QPIRG holds workshop discussing “white allyship” context of Islamophobia in academia

On February 15, QPIRG-McGill held a workshop in the SSMU building titled “Boomerang Effect: Islamophobia and Mental Health in Academia,” as part of their annual Social Justice Days event series. The workshop covered definitions and origins of Islamophobia, developments of Islamophobia in the post-9/11 and Trump era, its place in academia, and its effects on mental health. The speakers were Sarah Abdelshamy, a U2 Joint Honours student in African Studies and World Islamic Middle East Studies and VP Finance of McGill World Islamic and Middle East Students Association, and Rawda Baharun, a U2 student in Psychology and the former President of Black Students’ Network at McGill.

The “boomerang effect” of Islamophobia

Abdelshamy began by explaining the “boomerang effect” of Islamophobia,  which occurs when people label those who do not share their privilege as ‘dangerous,’ without acknowledging that they, as privileged people, are the ones threatening the marginalised.

“White supremacy taught white people that all people of colour are threats, regardless of their behaviour,” said Abdelshamy. “The white person who has been educated and moulded by all those thinkings and all these privileges, looks at the other and perceives them as a threat, when in reality, they are the threat.”

She continued to explain that the term “Islamophobia” itself is problematic. By removing agency from the person responsible for it, the perpetrator is portrayed as the victim. In fact, Islamophobia is not merely fear; it masks irrational hatred towards Muslims.

“We coin these terms, like Islamophobia, as if it is a fear and it is something that can be cured; it’s an illness, right? It’s something you cannot control,” said Abdelshamy.

Islamophobia in academia

According to Abdelshamy, academia is inherently colonial and designed to exclude those from whom academia does not benefit. She compared academia to the prison-industrial complex, pointing out similarities between the two concepts.

“If we think of prison as an institution, in this case an educational institution like McGill, the prison only inflicts violence on prisoners, but not all prisoners are criminals and not all criminals are prisoners. If you’re Muslim, you are a prisoner even if you’re not a criminal. White folks are part of the prison, but [are] not prisoners. They’re part of the prison as the infrastructure, not as individuals. And they might be criminals, but they will never be prisoners,” said Abdelshamy.

During the discussion, Baharun pointed out that Western-directed initiatives to study Islam fail to acknowledge the real-life experiences of those who practise it. As a result, the rich life experiences and human capacity of Muslims are neglected, in the name of academic objectivity.

“If we think of prison as an institution, in this case an educational institution like McGill, the prison only inflicts violence on prisoners, but not all prisoners are criminals and not all criminals are prisoners.”

Islamophobia and mental health

The two speakers also  discussed the effects of Islamophobia on mental health. Abdelshamy pointed out that anger is a common emotion that Muslims feel, and can be both troubling and rewarding.

“There is no way you can walk through McGill without feeling that rage,” said Abdelshamy. “Our anger is always going to be read as something that is violent, something to be censored and eradicated because our anger is ‘unjustified.’ […] I think we forget what anger is. […] Anger is our ability to feel, and I think that’s necessary because one, it’s a reminder that you are alive, and two, [it’s a reminder] that you are humans and thus [shows that] we are refuting the idea of dehumanizing Muslims and […] others.”

Possibilities of white allyship

To Abdelshamy, white allyship should not be seen as the panacea to Islamophobia. She maintained that it is dangerous for Muslims to rely on others, especially those who are responsible for marginalizing the Muslim community, to seek social justice, especially concerning an inherently violent cause.

“What I want is for people of colour to walk out of this room and say, ‘I am allowed to be angry’ because anger is sacred; it’s important and it’s needed. […]  I want white folks to walk out of this room and be like, ‘She’s angry because of me,’ and that’s fine because [white folks]  can also stop the apparatus of anger,” said Abdelshamy.

As for Baharun, she thought that students could start being allies by inspecting their own internalized Islamophobia, and by speaking up in the classroom.

“It’s up to each and every one of us to unpack our own biases, and understand what [we] have internalised already and what [we]  have yet to internalize,” said Baharun. “I have been in a classroom where students talk about, or write articles, on how much of an ally they are, they stand in solidarity with people of colour. But when it comes time to allowing problematic rhetoric to go on in that classroom space, they are nowhere to be found. Even just [in terms of] offering some [emotional] support they are often absent. Being present and communicating [are] absolutely fundamental to being an ally.”

“It’s up to each and everyone of us to unpack our own biases, and undersand what [we] have internalised already and what [we] have yet to internalise.”

Islamophobia and McGill

During the Q&A session, participants discussed specific manifestations of Islamophobia at  McGill, and the different degrees to which it manifests on different parts of campus.

“[Islamophobia] is more superficially visible in the Arts faculty because it makes up parts of class discussions. […] People have more of a platform to express views that are Islamophobic. But in the Science faculty, Islamophobia is somewhat hidden. It’s hidden in the way that many scientists at McGill are personally responsible for aiding in the development of technologies that are used against people of colour,” said a participant who asked  to remain anonymous.

Participants also discussed  solutions to reducing Islamophobia and agreed that there are no easy solutions, since Islamophobia is based on irrational fear and hatred, rather than sound reasoning. However, a participant asserted that communication and education was a good starting point.

At the end of the event, Amy Darwish, the working group and community research coordinator at QPIRG McGill, expressed her support for the event:

“In the context of the one-year anniversary of the January 29th shooting at the Grande Mosque in Quebec,  the passing of Bill 62, and the climate of growing Islamophobia, I think it is very important to have a space for people to talk about Islamophobia and the way in which it operates.”

QPIRG’s Social Justice Days, with the theme “Coming In From the Cold,” started on February 7 and wraps up on February 19.