Arab and Muslim students thanked University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg last week for addressing their concerns about race-related intimidation on campus.
Several students, including Muslim Students Association members, recently requested Trachtenberg reiterate GW’s zero-tolerance policy against intimidation, threats or harassment, which he did in two full-page advertisements in The Hatchet earlier this month.
MSA President Amna Arshad helped lead the effort to reaffirm the policy. In mid-March, she wrote a letter to Trachtenberg asking that he issue a statement reiterating the University’s effort to create a campus environment free of hate crimes.
The MSA called an emergency town hall meeting March 25, about a week after U.S. troops invaded Iraq and just after most students returned from spring break. The 50 students in attendance urged Trachtenberg to issue a formal declaration condemning attacks against Muslims, similar to a statement he signed earlier in the year with about 300 university presidents nationwide decrying acts of anti-Semitism.
At the meeting, Trachtenberg said the statement, while aimed at anti-Semitism, condemned all hate crimes; he would make a similar statement about acts of intolerance but would not address the concerns of any specific ethnic or religious group.
“I didn’t feel that was adequate because it made light of a lot of our concerns,” Arshad said this week. “I followed up with him and spoke to (the administration) and came to mutual understanding.”
Trachtenberg printed a response to Arshad’s letter, which reaffirmed his position that the earlier statement condemned all hate crimes, in a paid advertisement in The Hatchet April 3.
Two weeks later, a signed statement from Trachtenberg appeared as another paid advertisement in the newspaper, this time specifically addressing the “relationship between the University and Arab and Muslim-American communities on campus.” This statement reaffirmed that the University “will take every possible action to ensure a campus free of intimidation, where all students are able to conduct their activities without fear of threats or harassment” and “has no tolerance for any action in violation of this policy.”
Arshad, a junior who was born in Pakistan but raised in the United States, said Trachtenberg was initially “kind of brushing off our concerns, and we didn’t really appreciate that.”
Last week, however, she wrote a letter to Trachtenberg thanking him for releasing the statement. Arshad said the MSA’s persistence helped reach the administration.
“If we had let the issue slide or put it off any longer, the University wouldn’t have been so responsive,” she said. “We appreciate their help a lot.”
GW officials said the campus has experienced no reported incidents of hate crimes in four years.
Trachtenberg said he was more willing to release the statement after a bus caught fire in a suspected arson strike outside a Virginia Islamic center in early April. The Associated Press reported a 12-seat bus became engulfed in flames just after 10 a.m. April 5 while parked behind the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Fairfax County, Va.
Arshad said that although she attends the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque often, no particular event sparked her correspondence with Trachtenberg.
“We thought it was important for us to be proactive rather than reactive. We don’t want to rule out the possibility of anything happening,” she said, adding some MSA members feared for the safety of family members in Iraq or parts of the country where hate crimes are occurring.
Many Muslim students, most of whom say they are still coping with a post-September 11 environment outside the University, have said they feel safe on campus.
Junior Mohammed Ali was surprised when he was stopped and searched before both his flights during a weeklong trip to Seattle in February. Ali, whose family is from India but practices Islam, was born and raised in the United States. He said he has not encountered any sort of racial profiling on campus.
“People have always treated me with a lot of respect (on campus), a lot of dignity,” Ali said. “When I encounter the outside world, that’s when I see problems.”