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For Muslims at the U and BYU, the Israel-Hamas war has shattered feelings of safety

The Muslim Student Association’s table at the University of Utah.
Courtesy of the Muslim Student Association
The Muslim Student Association’s table at the University of Utah.

When a 19-year-old Muslim student at the University of Utah received a voicemail on Oct. 12, she read the rough transcript her iPhone provided and knew it was not something she wanted to listen to.

The first time she heard it was when she played it for officers at the campus police station. During the first few seconds, the caller uses profanity and aggressively calls her derogatory and sexist words.

“All Muslims are terrorists and you know it. I don’t know who the f*** you think you are having any place in this country. Go back to the Middle East to see how well you do there,” the caller ranted.

The student, who has lived in Utah her entire life, changed her phone number afterward. KUER is granting her request for anonymity due to safety concerns.

Listening to that message made her “feel very small” — like her existence was not important.

“I guess it was sort of dehumanizing,” she said. “I did cry when I listened to it.”

There have been other calls and similar voicemails to members of the Muslim Student Association at the University of Utah. The harassment started shortly after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in Israel, when the association noticed a few new individuals joined their group chat — which included students, alumni and faculty.

This wasn’t too unusual, since according to the student, the association used to have a link to join the chat on their social media.

Then, those new individuals started asking about holding a rally to support Palestine. Before this, the student said the association had not posted anything on social media about the Israel-Hamas war, nor did it have plans for a rally. When the association’s leadership didn’t respond, the student said those individuals started talking about planning their own rally.

The group’s leadership did not want a rogue rally, so they held a Zoom meeting for members to discuss what they should do. During the meeting, those individuals became more aggressive, demanding a protest. The student said leadership and club members said they did not feel safe or comfortable holding a rally, and thought a donation drive or fundraising dinner would be more beneficial.

After the Zoom meeting, the group chat was flooded with inappropriate images, racial slurs and Islamophobic messages. The individuals were blocked, but then some association members received voicemails and text messages.

A report was made to the University of Utah Police Department, the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action and the Racist and Bias Incident Response Team. According to the incident response team’s website, they are monitoring the situation.

“As the violence intensifies and tensions escalate, we recognize that many of our colleagues have families and friends who are now in harm’s way,” the statement on the website reads. “As the crisis unfolds, it is imperative that we remember our work at the University of Utah is built on a foundation of our shared humanity and responsibilities to each other as a community. We ask our campus community to consider the enormity of loss and seek to comprehend the nuances at play.”

The U.S. Department of Education recently put out a letter about an “alarming rise” in anti-semitic and Islamophobic incidents on college campuses. The letter reminded colleges of their legal responsibility to provide an environment free from discrimination.

While she has experienced microaggressions, the student told KUER she has never experienced harassment as she heard in that voicemail. It made her nervous to go back to her classes.

“I think it definitely drew me closer to my Muslim student friends because, like, I think we all kind of had that shared fear,” the student said.

The response to the Muslim Student Association’s own statement was positive and the group has received support from other students. Outside of that, she said some students “have experienced offhanded comments or weird things.” But to the student, the good has outweighed the bad.

While the University of Utah did address the issue on its Racist and Bias Incident Response website and provided resources to the Muslim Student Association, the student said she would like the university to put out a more public statement to the broader university community. By more publicly acknowledging that bias exists, the student hopes Muslim students outside of the association would be able to learn more about the resources.

Muslim students at BYU

In Utah County, Muslim Brigham Young University student Sama Salah is a junior studying business.

Salah is president of BYU’s Arab Student Association but said in an interview that she does not speak for the association or for all Arab students.

After the Oct. 7 attack, Salah posted a screenshot of several news headlines on Instagram and said “buzzwords and phrases like ‘attack on Israel,’ 'militants,’ ‘conflict,’ and ‘war’ are meant to misdirect and mislead. It’s been said over and over again before, but I’ll say it again: what’s been happening in Palestine for the past 70+ years is NOT a conflict. It is not a war. It is occupation, apartheid, colonialism, and dare I say, genocide.”

The Cougar Chronicle, a conservative online publication that focuses on BYU but is not formally approved by the school, posted an article that included screenshots from Salah’s Instagram with the headline “Official Arab BYU Club Leadership Posts Warm Comments for Hamas Terror Attack.”

Salah has since made her account private.

“There shouldn’t be people getting killed, point blank,” Salah said in her denunciation of terrorism. “I’m saying OK, if we’re going to talk about this, let’s also talk about what Palestinians have been going through for 70-plus years.”

Some of her Muslim friends at school have been accused of being “terrorist sympathizers,” she said and she’s seen hateful comments online from members of the BYU community. She has also experienced people giving her their unprovoked opinion on what is happening in Palestine, recalling how one student told her “Israel has a right to do whatever it can to eliminate these terrorists.”

Salah said she hasn’t had too many in-person confrontations, chalking that up to a culture she sees at BYU where people tend to avoid difficult conversations. While she doesn’t necessarily want to argue, she does wish she saw more students talking about the Israel-Hamas war in a productive way.

Previously, Salah said she felt like BYU was a safe place for Muslim students, but now that feeling of safety has been compromised.

She worries someone will read online that BYU Arab Student Association leadership is posting “supportive messages of the [Hamas] attack” and decide to take matters into their own hands. It’s concerning for her, based on what is happening to Muslim people nationwide, including in Utah.

Recently, Salah said she was praying in a room on campus, but that she moved where she was positioned so she could see anyone who came into the room.

“I know that with me and some of my other friends that I talk to, we feel like we're waiting for something to happen. Like, we literally feel like we're sitting ducks waiting to see how far this hate is going to go.”

Editor’s note: KUER is a licensee of the University of Utah but operates as an editorially independent news organization.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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