Silencing the Call to Prayer

For some Muslims, keeping the faith at Harvard means
coping with the threat of violence.
Published On Wednesday, March 08, 2006  10:09 PM
Crimson Staff Writer

At 8:30 p.m. on September 19, 2000, Munir Zilanawala
’01 was walking past St. Paul’s Cathedral on his way
back to Dunster House when two skinheads attacked him
from behind.

Zilanawala, who was wearing a Kufi, an Islamic prayer
cap, said he immediately knew his assailants were
interested in something more malicious than his money.

“I took 10 bucks out of my pocket and I said
‘Here—just take it,’” Zilanawala says. “But they
didn’t. It wasn’t a robbery-motivated attack.”

Soon after the men left him shouting for help on the
church steps, Zilanawala’s friend found him and called
the police. Zilanawala was taken to a hospital with
deep gashes on his head which needed stitches.

Five years later, Huma Farid ’06 was walking past
Lamont when she heard a woman screaming, “You filthy
Jew-hater!” The woman proceeded to chase her down the

Farid, whose family comes from Pakistan, reported the
incident to the Cambridge Police Department, but was
later disappointed by what she said she perceived as
the College’s nonchalant response.

“No administrator contacted me with the exception of
[Director of the Harvard Foundation] Dr. [S. Allen]
Counter,” Farid says. No community advisory was sent
out by the administration, and for a couple of days
after the incident, Farid wore hoodies to hide the
head scarf, or hijab, she wears.

Although recent attacks against Muslims on the Harvard
campus have not been directly perpetrated by students,
Islamophobia exists in less overt forms at Harvard.
Many Muslim students have experienced moments when
they said they have felt surprised or offended by
others’ assumptions about followers of Islam.


A few months after Farid’s encounter, The Harvard
Salient published the now-famous anti-Islamic Danish
cartoons. Associate Dean of Harvard College Judith H.
Kidd responded with an e-mail to the conservative
biweekly warning that “some segments of the campus and
surrounding communities may be sufficiently upset by
the publication of the cartoons that they may become
dangerous.” She later apologized.

In light of the College’s indifferent response to
Farid’s verbal attack, Muslim students found Kidd’s
original e-mail misplaced.

“When things actually do happen to Muslim students on
campus,” Hebah M. Ismail ’06, vice president of the
Harvard Islamic Society and a Crimson editor, says,
“no one from the administration even contacted Huma
[Farid] or other Muslim students.” Ismail adds that
Kidd revealed to her in a meeting that she had not
even heard of Farid’s incident until reading about it
in The Crimson.

A 2004 Divinity School graduate, Wasim S. Rahman, says
he sees Kidd’s e-mail as an example of dangerous
manifestations of cultural ignorance at Harvard.

“By not contacting the Harvard Islamic Society about
the issue, she was accepting that Muslims have a
propensity towards this violence,” Rahman says.

Zilanawala says that the administration in general
should be more proactive in encouraging dialogue
between Muslim students and the student body at large.

“Because the administration’s response to Islamophobia
over the past few years has been overall
disappointing, it should fight hate speech with more
speech,” he says.


According to The Forum Against Islamophobia & Racism,
Islamophobia is defined as “alienation,
discrimination, harassment and violence rooted in
misinformed and stereotyped representations of Islam
and its adherents.” Many Harvard Muslims say students
have never had a direct confrontation, but others do
sense a menacing undercurrent of misconceptions on

“Here we think we know everything there is to know,”
Deena S. Shakir ’08 says. “A lot of those
misconceptions come out through intellectual or
academic windows.”

Shakir, the president of the Society for Arab
students, says that Islamophobia—or, by extension,
Arabophobia or Middle East-phobia—stems from
misunderstandings, not simply lack of information.
According to Shakir, Islamophobia is more often
projected through intellectual avenues at Harvard.

“It’s not going to be somebody insulting someone on
the street,” Shakir says. “It’s going to be an op-ed.”


In the spring of 2002, Zayed M. Yasin ’02, former
president of the Harvard Islamic Society, planned to
give a speech at Commencement titled, “Of Faith and
Citizenship: My American Jihad.”

“The speech was about unity between American and
Muslim values,” Yasin says.

However, Yasin’s proposed address was met with
criticism from a group of students who were concerned
that the word “Jihad” would be too offensive to
students and family who had lost loved ones in the
September 11th attacks. According to a Crimson article
published in June 2002, others were also concerned
that Yasin had supported the Holy Land Foundation, an
Islamic charity which has been accused of channeling
funds to terrorist organizations.

The Commencement committee supported Yasin, and he
delivered the speech at the ceremony despite protests.

Yasin remembers a girl, whose father had died at the
World Trade Center on 9/11, e-mailing him before the
ceremony to describe her reservations about his
speech. Yasin says, however, that she also objected to
the outcry against the speech. Yasin responded by
offering to read his address to her before the

“I met her in Leverett JCR and told her what I was
going to say,” Yasin says. “She responded with ‘That’s

For Yasin, the incident captured exactly what his
intentions were in writing the speech—a call for
dialogue between Muslim Americans and other Americans.

“Unlike many of the people who were trying to stop me
from speaking, she had a real concern,” he says.
“People who had the greatest right [to be offended] by
what I was saying didn’t find anything wrong with it.”


As a researcher at the Kennedy School of Government,
Rahman has recently encountered greater numbers of
misinformed students assuming they know all about

“People think they understand Islam through the sound
byte culture we’ve got,” Rahman says. He recalls an
interfaith discussion group about the Danish cartoon
controversy in which some Harvard students asserted
confidently that the Muslim theology against
representing the prophet Muhammad is a new phenomenon.

“They were trying to tell Muslims—me, other Muslim
students—what we believe,” he says. “It’s really
inappropriate for someone with a cursory understanding
of Islam to tell them what they believe.”

Rahman is concerned about replacing dialogue with
columns and e-mail lists.

“Impersonal means of communication aren’t productive
to bringing understanding to people,” he says.

Last week, the Harvard Islamic Society (HIS) worked to
open up such a personal dialogue by coordinating
“Islam Awareness Week.” The organization hosted
activities such as an “Ask-a-Muslim” table in Loker
Commons, prayer services at Lowell Lecture Hall, and
discussion groups. HIS president Khalid M. Yasin ’06
says the week was very successful.

“Our hope is to get out information and to show that
there’s no need for knee-jerk reactions,” he says.

Rahman seems optimistic that American society and the
Harvard community is tolerant and that dialogue will
happen if Harvard students are willing to listen.

“I fear for Harvard students in the sense that we take
the knowledge that we get however little we know how
to act upon it,” he says. “If that knowledge is
incomplete, you end up in a place where you’re wrong.”


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