For most Americans, election years promise spirited debate, embarrassing gaffes and plenty of fresh material for late-night comics. For me, and for other Muslims across the country, election years promise sideways glances, scapegoating and pervasive Islamophobia.
Last December, Georgetown made headlines by hosting an “Interfaith Gathering for Solidarity.” Members of the gathering included leaders from six different faith traditions, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Vice President Joe Biden. I was in Gaston Hall that day, enjoying my view from the middle of the upper deck. The speeches focused on shared humanity, a message that was especially resonant in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., and the reactionary surge of Islamophobia that followed.
I appreciated Georgetown for responding to the wave of hatred with an act of harmony and love. My university — the university I had chosen to attend eight months prior — had brought the vice president of the United States to join it in taking a stance against Islamophobia. After the event, I told The Georgetown Voice, “Being Muslim, I notice [Islamophobia] especially because I pay attention, but it’s amazing how Georgetown’s actually addressing it. … For Georgetown to acknowledge it first and then to actually do something about it and invite important people, it’s amazing to see.”
After the gathering, I waited for my university to take the next step. In my mind, there were so many possibilities. Will Georgetown reach out to Muslim communities and continue interfaith dialogues? Would an Islamic studies minor be added? Would the campus ministry have its own “Interfaith Gathering for Solidarity”? I waited patiently for the university to act. Unfortunately, I was left waiting.
But I am used to waiting. I already know that public desire to take action against Islamophobia only lasts as long as animosity remains in the headlines. I have already seen my aunts and cousins become hijab-wearing tokens, used for an “Islam is peace” soundbite before promptly being forgotten. The truth is that sympathy for Muslims passes in and out of fashion more quickly than a hashtag does on Twitter. It may be a sad truth, but truthfully I am numb to it. I am used to having temporary allies, and I am used to fleeting sympathy.
I cannot forget about Islamophobia because Muslim issues are my issues. I cannot scroll past them on Facebook to make them disappear. I live them every single day. Muslim issues are so ingrained in my daily experience that it takes a lot to make me angry about bigotry. I did not get mad a month ago when I opened Twitter and read a tweet from @_AltRight_ that said, “Protip: #Muslims & other non-Whites can’t blow you up, rape you, murder you or steal your kids’ future if they aren’t in your country #Paris.” But sometimes I do get angry. I got angry when “grown” men in a pickup truck yelled slurs at my 5-year-old brother in a parking lot. I got angry when a belligerent football fan yanked my mother’s hair while yelling “Osama bin Laden.” I was angry, but not at those whose hate bubbled up to the surface. I was angry at the apathy in the hearts of those who remained silent, and those who refused to act.
Some will unavoidably ask: “Why should Georgetown care? Why should we have to do something? Isn’t it someone else’s responsibility? After all, this is a Catholic school, not an Islamic one.”
Recently, I listened to Fr. O’Brien, S.J., discuss Jesuit values. He said Jesuits separate themselves from other religious orders by doing the work that no one else will do, the work that most needs to be done. Their founders went to the pope and asked to be sent wherever they could advance the glory of God and the common good. Their commitment to take on the world’s most challenging problems has inspired the Jesuits to be educators, scientists and astronomers in all corners of the world. Their commitment founded Georgetown University.
In the spirit of this commitment, the university has done inspiring work through the Center for Social Justice, the Beeck Center and many other organizations. Additionally, Georgetown is a leader among universities in working against Islamophobia; Georgetown has established the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and the Bridge Initiative, which are both designed to foster love and eradicate hatred. Georgetown has set itself up to make a serious impact on the national discourse about Islam in America, yet the university is missing a key component: Muslim communities. Georgetown’s top-down approach has addressed Islamophobia in academic settings, but has isolated the university from those who have to face hatred every day.
I look at Georgetown and think, “What are you waiting for?” A university’s primary function is to gather people to start conversations. Georgetown is uniquely poised to engage thousands of Muslims in the national dialogue about Islam in America. I just hope that instead of sitting on the sidelines and in the classroom, this Jesuit university will once again make a commitment to go out into the world and to tackle its toughest challenges head-on. I just pray that my university will trade its sympathy for action.
Baasit Bhutta is a freshman in the College.