April 8, 2016

Group to IUPUI Chancellor: Do More To Condemn Harassment of Muslim Student Leader

IUPUI Chancellor Nassar Paydar - Photo courtesy of IUPUI

IUPUI Chancellor Nassar Paydar

Photo courtesy of IUPUI

Supporters of a Muslim student leader at IUPUI are calling on the university's chancellor to step up his response to incidents last weekend in which she was painted as a terrorist and mocked for her appearance.

The student, who asked that her only her first name, Haneen, be used, is a leader of the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. 

The appearance of fliers on campus Sunday coincided with the last day of the Midwest Students for Justice in Palestine conference. “SJP is funded by terrorists,” the flier said, and attempted to connect the group and Haneen to an agenda of coordinating “violent acts on U.S. campuses.” She was also targeted in several blog posts and videos, and received harassing phone calls.

“I love my campus. I chose to come here for reasons of being able to voice my opinion and be respected,” Haneen said Friday. “And that’s what I loved about it. And the fact that now that I’m being called a terrorist – for whatever reason – is really sad and terrifying for me.”

Chancellor Nasser Paydar sent an email to faculty and staff on Thursday saying that “recent events have underscored the need for me to remind the campus community that there is a place for all voices at IUPUI” and that the university is “committed to providing forums for the free expression and exchange of ideas, including those we may not condone,” but it did not make any specific reference to Haneen’s situation.

“It did not go far enough,” Haneen said. “It did not inform everyone, ‘listen, you have a student on this campus that’s being targeted. You have a student on this campus who’s being called a terrorist,’” she said. “They attacked my religion. They attacked me because I’m a female. It wasn’t just about my work for justice in Palestine.”

But the university also has an obligation to defend academic freedom and debate, said IUPUI spokeswoman Margie Smith-Simmons.

“Our role is to be all-inclusive,” she said.  “We want to hear both sides, but we do not condone derogatory, incendiary, inflammatory statements. I feel like the statement that the chancellor circulated addresses that.”

The incident at IUPUI is “kind of surprising,” given that the SJP chapter at IUPUI had mainly organized low-key educational or social events, said Erin Polley, a program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee in Indiana. But it’s not an isolated one: she says that in 2015 there were more than 100 documented incidents of efforts to suppress or intimidate Palestinian-Americans or Palestinian-rights activists working on campus.

“A majority of students involved in Students for Justice in Palestine are Arab and Muslim students. They’re a very vulnerable population on their campuses already. They have a lot at stake to be engaged in this work and speaking out publicly,” Polley said.

Polley helped organize a press conference Friday at which Haneen’s supporters demanded that Paydar do more to condemn the attacks. 

“What we’ve asked from the chancellor is a public statement,” said Lindsay Littrell, who is one of about 75 staff and faculty members who also signed a letter of support for the student. “Part of the intention of that is that Haneen does need her name cleared. A public statement from the chancellor coming out against hate speech and harassment on campus would be important for people to be able to see.”

In a letter dated Friday, the group Palestine Legal reminded Paydar that universities have a legal obligation to students like Haneen under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to protect their rights to speak out on issues of Palestinian human rights and to protect them from harassment or intimidation.

Smith-Simmons said that the school opened an investigation into the incident after Haneen contacted them on Sunday, and that IUPUI is working with several law-enforcement agencies find the source of the harassing fliers, posts, and phone calls. They are also working to have the posts and videos removed from the internet. There’s no evidence that they originated with anyone associated with the school, she said. 

Smith-Simmons said Paydar would make another statement once the investigation is finished, but she did not know how long that would take.

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