Safety concerns grow as campus hate crime increases

Arab Muslim students and academics studying and working in western universities and associated research centres are concerned about their safety following last month’s killings of three Arab students near America’s University of North Carolina.

"This was a hate crime – a crime that would have been defined as terrorism if the roles were reversed," several Muslim student associations and Western academics wrote in an open letter to the campus community about the shootings.

Several reports such as Historical Events and Spaces of Hate: Hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims in post-9/11 America and Hate Crime in the Wake of Terror Attacks: Evidence from 7/7 and 9/11, indicated that attacks worldwide such as the 7 January France-based attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine, the September 11 attacks in the US and other attacks around the world have raised fear among overseas Arab Muslim students and academics about the build-up of blanket hostility towards foreigners.

The 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the world’s largest bloc of Muslim countries, said the murders of the three Arab students heightened international concerns about “rising anti-Muslim sentiments and Islamophobic acts” in the US.

In France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim population with five million people and about half from the Maghreb countries, 128 anti-Muslim incidents were reported in the two weeks after the Charlie Hebdo killings. That compared with the 133 incidents reported during the whole of 2014, according to the National Observatory Against Islamophobia.


University World News investigated how these events were affecting Arab Muslim students and academics studying abroad, how they were coping and what ways were available to protect them and to make campuses free of hate crime.

"I strongly agree that such events as the Paris attack will affect Middle Eastern and Arab students and academics studying abroad in several ways,” said Libyan scientist Amal Rhema at Victoria University in Melbourne. “For example, they will face more problems when seeking academic acceptance in schools and universities, and in obtaining accommodation and employment."

Nearly 250,000 students from the Middle East and North Africa flock to universities overseas every year to pursue higher education. Saudi Arabia accounts for the highest share with 26% of the students going abroad, followed by Morocco with 18%, and Algeria with 10%.

The favourite destinations for most students are France, which attracts 29%, the US and Britain, according to a recent report.

"We are already seeing sets of anti-terrorism policies not only in France but in Western European countries," said Manar Sabry, an Egyptian higher education expert at the State University of New York.

Sabry added that Arab students might be reluctant to go to the US or Europe because of fear of discrimination and the uncertainty about protective measures taken by the governments, as well as the longer time taken to conduct security checks to grant visas.

"We may also see greater tension in universities against all Muslim and Arab descendants in France as well as in several European countries," she said.

Impact on Arab students

Calestous Juma, co-chair of the African Union's High-Level Panel on Science, Technology and Innovation, and director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project at Harvard University, agreed: "The world community needs to focus attention on xenophobia and hate crimes," he said.

Juma said the Paris shootings were one concern because such an event had "a chilling effect on the international mobility of students", but that public education and enhanced security could provide some comfort.

A guide to hate crime for international students in the US was produced to protect Arab students and others, especially after the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war. Other reports such as Hate Crimes on Campus: The problem and efforts to confront it have also been published.

On the other hand, Egyptian scientist Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University, USA, said that unfortunate events such as the attacks in Paris should have no effect on Arab students studying abroad.

El-Baz, who is also a member of the Presidential Advisory Council for Egypt’s Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, said Arab students abroad should separate themselves from such inhuman events: "There should be no link between such events and the sincere efforts of those seeking knowledge," he said.

El-Baz's views were echoed by Abdelkader Djeflat, an Algerian higher education expert at the University of Lille in France: “There is no fear whatsoever at the university where I work," Djeflat said.

Similarly, Anouar Majid, a Moroccan-born higher education expert and vice-president for global affairs at the University of New England in the US, said: “I don’t expect anything to change dramatically. Jihadism will be monitored more closely, for sure, but university students will be fine."

Arab students may move

Manar Sabry, however, expected that new students would probably seek safe destinations, while some current students might transfer to a different country if they felt threatened in their western universities.

"The students who will continue their studies should be vigilant regarding any act of discrimination or hate crimes and should record and report such actions to their universities and to the authorities," she said.

Sabry said that authorities and universities in the countries of origin would also consider not sending students to study in France if they believed they faced potential danger.

"International students should be extra careful about any incident around them and avoid questionable situations. Western universities should emphasise their commitment to justice and protection for all students."

She said student unions could play an important role in creating a welcoming environment. They could hold debates, lectures and talks to “narrow the gaps and they can form crisis response teams".

Launching hate-free campuses by engaging the entire campus community in educational programmes, training and activities designed to confront and stop acts of hate, could also be undertaken, Sabry suggested.

Victoria University’s Amal Rhema said one of the ways to deal with hate crime was to make “a big contribution to the media” and give a clear picture of Islam to show that “as Muslims, we are all against these attacks”.

“At the same time, we are also all against insulting the Prophet Muhammad in particular and the religion of Islam in general,” she added.