A Muslim valedictorian is abandoned by her own university


(RNS) — Four years ago, in the beginning of the pandemic, I invited high school and college graduates to send me their speeches they would never give, as their graduation ceremonies had been obliterated by COVID-19. One high schooler responded with a speech that said, in part: 

“Just like with each of the trying times of student life, there is a carefully embedded lesson that comes with graduating. … Maybe it’s realizing the importance of family ties, our friendships, or self-care,” wrote Asna Tabassum, valedictorian at Ruben S. Ayala High School in Southern California. “To me, this prospect of a deeper meaning is pretty reassuring. … In fact, there’s a comforting hadith from the Prophet Muhammad (saw) about this: ‘What has reached you was never meant to miss you, and what has missed you was never meant to reach you.’”

This month, Tabassum was again a valedictorian — this time at the University of Southern California — and again was preparing a speech that she was told she could not deliver, as USC barred her from speaking out of concern for campus safety after social media posts in Tabassum’s past were called out as antisemitic. This is the first time in USC’s history that a valedictorian will not be making a speech at commencement.

Rather than the natural disaster of COVID-19, or even internet trolls preventing this hardworking, brilliant student from making her commencement speech, she was stifled this time by her own university, whose officials chose her out a of a pool of more than 100 applicants to be this year’s valedictorian. In a personal statement issued Tuesday (April 16), Tabassum said: “I am not surprised by those who attempt to propagate hatred. I am surprised that my own university — my home for four years — has abandoned me.”

USC said it was responding to threats after a campus group called Trojans Israel accused Tabassum of espousing “antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric,” citing her Instagram bio that has a link to a website calling Zionism a “racist settler-colonial ideology.” USC Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Andrew T. Guzman, in his statement, said, “We cannot ignore the fact that similar risks have led to harassment and even violence at other campuses.” 

Let’s believe safety is indeed USC’s primary concern, and administrators were not simply bowing to pressure from those who object to Tabassum’s pro-Palestinian beliefs. Even so, there are several alternatives to having Tabassum appear live, such as playing a recording of the speech at graduation or allowing her to deliver it by Zoom. If allowing her to appear at all is a problem, they could email a recording to all graduates or share it the university’s social media channels.

None of that is currently on the table, as the provost office also said in its statement that “there is no free-speech entitlement to speak at commencement.” Apparently there’s not even an entitlement to attend graduation: The university isn’t sure yet if Tabassum will be allowed to sit on stage at graduation, according to Erroll Southers, associate senior vice president for safety and risk assurance at USC, in an interview in The New York Times. (My requests for an interview to USC’s provost office were denied.) 

When I reached out to Donald E. Miller, Firestone Professor of Religion and co-founder of USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, he directed me to an open email he sent to USC President Carol Folt and to Guzman. “Free speech sometimes requires risks,” Miller wrote. “USC could have set an example for the nation by not censoring the Valedictorian’s right to speech. Now you have created a situation that will invite protests, send a horrible message to our Muslim community, and tarnished the reputation of the university. Furthermore, you have raised deep suspicions about the role of the Israeli lobby and Jewish members of the Board of Trustees in making this decision.”

Evelyn Alsultany, a professor in the department of American studies and ethnicity at USC, agreed, telling me: “This decision is caving to external pressures and conveying that Muslims identities and perspectives are not worth defending. While the administration is stating that this is not about free speech, but about safety, concerns about safety are due to speech and therefore not separate.”

Tabassum’s social media posts were never hidden. The causes she supports and the things she stands for were free for viewing. Her minor in “Resistance to Genocide,” which also apparently offended several people who vehemently objected to her speaking at graduation and her being selected as valedictorian, is listed plainly in the USC catalog. USC’s cave instead comes against a backdrop of escalating tensions at numerous colleges and universities, where the Israel-Hamas war has provoked anti-Palestinian, Islamophobic and antisemitic incidents and attacks.

There’s no argument that antisemitism (as well as anti-Palestinian attacks and Islamophobia) on campus has increased in the past six months. Columbia University President Nemat Minouche Shafik testified in front of Congress this week about antisemitism on her campus and how Columbia’s antisemitism task force is working to tamp down targeted harassment of Jewish students and protect university students. 

And so while there’s no question that the harassment of Jewish students is unacceptable, Palestinian and Muslim students around the country say there is a lack of similar attention and scrutiny by academic administrations and Congress on the attacks they are facing.

A report just released by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding underscores this, concluding that American Muslims, particularly students, are most likely to face religious discrimination. According to the report, 65% of Muslims are significantly more likely than Jewish Americans (41%) and the general public (33%) to report experiencing discrimination at work or school when interacting with peers.

The report goes on to say that Jewish Americans are more likely than the general public to report some frequency of discrimination from peers, but less frequently than Muslims, who feel they have more to lose by speaking out.

What Tabassum is facing at USC is yet another example of how academic institutions are failing to protect students equally and are bowing to pressures from outside groups. As Alsultany shared with me: “Anti-Palestinian racism and Islamophobia are rendered invisible. The consistent message is not only that they do not matter but that they deserve to be silenced and smeared. It is an insidious and widespread silencing tactic.” 

(Dilshad D. Ali is a freelance journalist. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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