Former university professor faces Islamophobia

Olivia Mann/THE REVIEW
Amnesty International holds an event to express dismay in light of Senator Lawson’s comments.

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On April 5, Naveed Baqir, executive director of the Delaware Council on Global and Muslim Affairs, and former faculty member of the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, and Tarek Ewis, imam of the Masjid Isa Ibn-e-Maryam mosque in Newark, were invited to give the Delaware state Senate invocation. This marked the first time members of the Muslim community were invited to lead opening prayer for the Delaware state Senate.

“It was a historic moment — a moment of pride,” Baqir said as he led Salahtul Jummah on Friday in the Ewing Room at Perkins Student Center. “We chose Delaware as our home, and on that day we also felt that Delaware had finally recognized us — finally chosen us — as its residents. Our presence was an indication of our patriotism. But as historic as it was, some senators, from the Delaware state Senate, stole that patriotism and that sense of pride from us.”

Two lawmakers, Sen. Dave Lawson (R-Marydel) and Sen. Colin Bonini (R-Dover South), walked out of the legislative session during the opening prayer, in which Baqir and Ewis read from the Quran, the holy book for Muslims.

Upon returning to the floor of the chamber, Lawson used the word “despicable” to describe the opening prayer and the reading from the Quran. According to the Associated Press, Lawson asserted “You can’t be a good American and a good Muslim.”

At first, the Lawson’s comments went practically unnoticed; the Senate proceeded as normal, debating and passing several bills, according to Associated Press.

Before the chamber adjourned later in the evening, Lawson received a rebuke from Sen. David McBride (D-New Castle), who was chosen unanimously as President Pro Tempore of the Senate on Jan. 10.

“There is complicity in remaining silent,” McBride said. “To criticize the sacred prayer of another religion from the floor of the Senate strikes me as antithetical to everything we ought to stand for as lawmakers.”

McBride reflected on the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The amendment explicitly guarantees the freedom of religion.

“The moment it was announced, that there was a reading from the Quran, without even trying to listen, they walked out,” Baqir said in an interview. “Lawson and Bonini have sat through the prayer of every other religion, and it did not matter if it was in a foreign language. The Sikh community has made prayer, and they [Lawson and Bonini] did not walk out. The Hindu community has made prayer, and they [Lawson and Bonini] had no problem with that.”

During the recent presidential election, Baqir became more engaged in Muslim activism. The Delaware Council on Global and Muslim Affairs “highlights social injustices and the infringement of the rights of people as a united Muslim voice,” according to Baqir in an interview.

Baqir emphasized the importance of a united Muslim voice, as news sources seldom include Muslims in panels discussing Muslims countries or Muslim issues; instead, the panel is comprised of “people who do not understand the Muslim community…effectively fueling misconceptions about the Muslim community.”

Baqir also added context to the Islamophobia of Lawson within the timeline of the recent presidential election. On June 21, 2016, the 148th General Assembly of the Delaware state Senate passed a bill recognizing two distinguished Muslim holidays, Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha. Baqir found it curious that Lawson had voted yes — he emphasized the potential for the rhetoric of President Donald Trump to shape the attitude of citizens towards the Muslim community.

Quickly mobilizing as to build off the momentum of the words of McBride, the university’s chapter of Amnesty International, hosted an event on Thursday, entitled “Letters to Lawson: Ignorance & Islamophobia.”

During the event, students wrote letters to Lawson about his remarks on the floor of the state Senate. The letters included phrases such as, “Your actions…are reflective of nothing but hate and misunderstanding.”

Amnesty International is the largest worldwide grassroots human rights organization. As a worldwide movement to halt violations of human rights, Amnesty International at the university focuses on a plethora of topics, such as immigration, human trafficking and forced disappearance.

“On the global scale, we focus on many different violations of human rights, but in the state of Delaware, we have really focused on police brutality, immigration rights, abolishing the death penalty and Islamophobia,” Shestin Thomson, a senior international relations major and president of Amnesty International, said.

Members of Amnesty International admitted that there are obstacles to grassroots mobilization for abuses of human rights worldwide on a predominantly “apathetic” white campus. Institutional research for 2016-2017 demonstrated that nearly three-fourths of the 17,669 matriculated undergraduate students on the university’s Newark campus are white.

“The student body seems apathetic,” Brandon Williams, a senior international relations and public policy double major, said. “But the apathy of the university is not impacting our ability to host events; we organized Letters to Lawson within a few days. The apathy of the university does not slow down our events, it just limits the voices being heard at the events.”

Despite the uptick in on-campus grassroots movement, there has been overwhelming support for Lawson’s statements.

“This is a moment of reflection, that Islamophobia happens here, in our own state,” Baqir said. “The senator [Lawson] went on to say ‘All Muslims are not terrorists, but all terrorism has been committed by Muslims.’ Did you forget the Irish Republican Army, the Second World War, and the atomic bombs? You forget about all of those acts of terrorism, but chose to talk about a few people, who are in the middle of Syria or Iran — wholly unimpacted by us.”

In an interview, Baqir wondered aloud like a concerned father.

“Our biggest hope is the youth, but our biggest challenge is, what do we teach our children?” Baqir said. “What do I tell my daughter? She will grow up in constant fear, and her loyalty and patriotism will be constantly questioned. I never thought, in my wildest dreams, that we would face issues of Islamophobia in the state of Delaware. And yet, here we are.”

On April 26th, the Delaware Council on Global and Muslim Affairs will be hosting a unity rally at the Legislative Hall in Dover, to demonstrate, in a united voice, that hateful rhetoric has no place in Delaware.

Every Friday, the Muslim Student Association (MSA) hosts Salahtul Jummah at 1:30 p.m. in Perkins Student Center.

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