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How ASU's Muslim students have dealt with tensions over the war in Gaza

Tensions have been high on college campuses around the country this spring as pro-Palestinian protesters have erected encampments and thousands have been arrested as a result.

More than 70 protesters were arrested at Arizona State University last month. As graduation festivities take place this week, a fence is now erected around Alumni Lawn, including "No trespassing" signs.

Universities nationwide have struggled with how to respond to the debate over the war in Gaza — and the protests it has sparked. They’ve come under fire for violating students’ First Amendment rights, and faced backlash for not stopping antisemitism on campuses.

Previously on The Show, we heard from the executive director of Hillel at ASU, an organization that supports Jewish students on campus. Now, turn to Imam Omar Tawil, the chaplain for Muslim life at ASU as well as the Imam at the Islamic Community Center of Tempe, which is located in downtown Tempe by ASU’s main campus.

He told me Muslim students are feeling the effects of this every day. The Muslim Student Association sent ASU leadership a letter months ago saying they have been met with "alienation and dismissal” and feel the administration has taken sides.

Since the protests and on-campus arrests, ASU has said its Office of General Counsel will review the removal of the encampment and will release its findings when it is complete.

In response to the accusations about Muslim protesters having their hijabs removed when they were arrested, ASU released a statement saying they appreciate the “cultural concerns expressed” and they are reviewing the matter.

Full conversation

OMAR TAWIL: One of the main concerns that people have had actually is that they have felt in multiple instances, the temperature in the room rising, they felt that there's more tensions with certain events that they've gone to or certain classes. There's a few students complaining that there were sudden changes in the way that they were treated or in the ways that they were addressed in class. There was one sister who wears the face veil who says that she was commanded to take it off during an exam. And that they were just treated differently and, and unnecessarily than before Oct. 7, literally in the same semester.

So what they saw was something that they've been unfamiliar with because they're young. But a lot of what I've been hearing has been reminiscent of post-9/11. You know, what did college campuses, what did high schools and even middle schools look like? And I think we've seen multiple examples of that not just only in Arizona State University or in the state of Arizona, but all over the country.

LAUREN GILGER: So let's talk about the kind of lead up to these protests, the encampments. This wasn't necessarily, you know, coordinated by the Muslim Students Association or anything like that. But do you know students who were involved? I know you were there, right.

TAWIL: Yeah, I was there throughout the whole morning and evening. And it came down to me seeing what was going on on campus and me hearing different, you know, reports from the police and from the ASU admin and also from the students, some of which was obviously corroborated by students recording what had happened. You know, you had an officer pull out a knife and start cutting tents and, and, and start, you know, slashing at water bottles or other equipment that the students had put on the encampment or on the, on the property, which is itself alarming.

And then I, I did get to meet some of the students that were behind it, Muslim and non-Muslim, you know, some of whom were also Jewish students. Which again, it fits everything that you've seen across the country, which is, it's not only Muslims, it's not only Palestinians, you have atheists, you have people of different political ideologies and you have people of different religious backgrounds all supporting it, and they're trying to come together and let the administration know that they stand against this.

GILGER: Is there any kind of disagreement or at least conversation within the Muslim student community at ASU about about how to approach this about the discussions around this? Does everyone want to protest?

TAWIL: You don't have a unified voice in terms of how to best go about it. You know, some people are more like, hey, follow the policies; and then you have some who say no, we're going to be a very American about this and have civil disobedience. You have students who disagreed with the encampment but they came out. They may not have stayed past a certain time, but they were there to show support. Some of some students who may say, you know what? I don't wanna necessarily encamp on the property, but I'm gonna bring water, I'm going to bring food. You even have certain students, medical school students and even other medic, physicians who say, you know what I may not encamp, but I'm going to be there for anyone who needs medical attention as the events unfold.

So you, you had various forms of support due to what they're protesting. Even if they may not 100% agree with the method. And sometimes I feel like this is very, quite honorable because you're not going to let your differences in method take away from the voice that needs to be spoken or that needs to be heard. So I found that to be really beautiful.

GILGER: What do you make of how that ended? And the arrest that happened of, of several dozen people.

TAWIL: At first, I, I appreciated that the response was a lot more mild. Yes, arrests took place. And this was my initial reaction. This is as I'm there watching it unfold. You know, I'm making sure that students understand what's going to happen. And I got, I got, I was able to come across to some students, not all, but I spoke to them and I made sure, OK, at least you know what you're putting on the line and if you're willing to do that and lose something for the sake of what you believe in and for the sake of speaking your piece, then I'm with you. So at first I was impressed, I was happy that it was not as violent as I've seen on, on other campuses.

But then later when I found out, you know, that same evening, actually, a few hours after I had gotten home, that there were Muslim women who had their hijabs removed. It's like, OK, where were we? Yeah, the students, the students were removed. Thankfully, no one was severely hurt or hurt according to my knowledge. And I could be wrong on that. But people were hurt in different ways.

GILGER: What do you make of the administration's response in general to the kind of conflict and these debates that are playing out across campus? I know some Muslim students, including the Muslim Student Association, you know, has, has been unhappy with some of the statements that ASU has put out.

TAWIL: Some of the administrative responses I respect. They're trying to make sure that students are protected and that they are safe. They're ensuring that the campus environment is safe for everybody and inclusive for everybody, and that's respectable and I commend them on their hard work. Other aspects of the administration's response is honestly just overwhelmingly confusing for students, and I can understand why and I agree with why. At a university, what are we taught? We are taught how to become a citizen of a moral conscious, educated. And in that process, we learn about the likes of Rosa Parks, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, we learn about Malcolm X. We learn about the protests of 1968 during the Vietnam War. We learn about the boycott divestment and sanctions that ended apartheid in South Africa.

But on this issue, we're told to forget all that, on this issue we're told, no, not here, this is different. So they see this as a moral failing of the administrators that are supposed to be facilitating this education towards a moral consciousness as American citizens. And they're honestly confused, and I feel, I feel with them.

GILGER: I spoke with the head of a Jewish student organization yesterday on The Show who talked about how hard it's been for many Jewish students to sort of separate this idea of being against Zionism and for Judaism, right? And they felt like this was other sort of defining what it means to be Jewish for them. Do you hear, I wonder, like, similar concerns from Muslim students about assumptions being made about what they believe or who they are?

TAWIL: Yeah. There's definitely assumptions about what they believe. I haven't seen any student-led calls. Yes, there are agitators. There are, you know, hoaxsters. Yet, I haven't seen any student-led calls for any discrimination against any Jewish students. Let's take ASU's encampment. There were a couple of agitators, the student leaders that were trying to bring this together and even some of the students, we're boxing them out, like they're not with us. They don't speak us. They're, they're not here, they're not here with us. They're not part of any of our organizations. They're not part of any of this. And they actually edged them out. They, they pushed them out. They're like, no, no, no, you're gonna ruin our message. Our message is not this. And that's why they had a very big poster that said: Judaism, yes. Zionism. No.

Judaism being a religious people or people who call towards God or people who call towards moral and ethical behavior. People who follow prophets and a tradition that is very old and ancient. Zionism being a product of the 19th century, the late 19th century and 20th century. This, it is a political ideology. So there is no call from any Muslim student-led efforts. There is no call from any Muslim student organizations or protests to any violence or any intolerance towards Jews. But there is a call out towards a political ideology and the problems that it's currently causing in the lands of Israel and Palestine.

GILGER: Let me ask, lastly about what's happening on the university campus. Like you are a chaplain to Muslim students at ASU, you've been sort of on the front lines of all of this. I wonder, like, do you see any coming together? What are the things you can offer and counsel students right now?

TAWIL: Definitely. I've seen an uptick in students who've been coming to the mosque, even non-Muslims, Christians, we've had Jews who have come by to offer their support, to offer their presence. It has been a bit overwhelming. We've had a lot more people come to the mosque, I guess because they quite literally are experiencing an existential crisis, and it's become a safe haven for a lot of students.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.