Anti-Muslim Sentiment Alive and Well in Texas

Ahmed Mohamed not the only student to face discrimination

Hisham Wernet's supposedly inappropriate drawing
Hisham Wernet's supposedly "inappropriate" drawing

Last week, Ahmed Mohamed, the Muslim teenager who brought a clock to his Irving high school only to be arrested when his teachers decided it was a bomb, announced that he will be moving to Qatar to continue his education. Mohamed's story brings renewed attention to the prejudice against Muslim Americans, specifically in Texas. The picture of the 14-year-old boy in handcuffs looking troubled caught the conscience of America, for a moment.

As sad as Mohamed's story is, he is somehow lucky. Following the incident, Mohamed received praise and encouragement from a number of famous figures, such as Hillary Clinton, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and President Obama, who tweeted, "Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It's what makes America great."

Unlike Mohamed, many members of the Muslim community in Texas experience hatred yet receive no support; their stories go unpublished.

Last year, Nancy Wernet, a white Muslim American in Pearland, Texas, received a phone call from the counselor at her son's middle school saying that her son, Hisham, drew a picture of a sword which was inappropriate and that the school wanted to discuss it with the 10-year-old child. Wernet immediately rushed to her son's school, which is located a few minutes away from her workplace, since Hisham requires specific attention due to a visual impairment.

When Wernet went to the school, she found out that Hisham had drawn a sword as part of a poetry class assignment through which students were asked to draw an object that has contradictory usage; Hisham wrote beside the sword, "decapitation and protection." Despite that there were other students who had drawn swords for their class assignment, Hisham's sword was seen as "inappropriate." When Wernet asked the principal what was the problem with Hisham drawing a sword, the school principal said, "Ma'am, you should be more sensitive to us being worried about ISIS."

Incidents of harassment and being singled out because of religion are not new to Hisham, Wernet said. Hisham, who is a quiet and introverted child, was once shoved into a wall by another a student while standing in line and got injured, an incident that the school described as "horseplay." In elementary school, Hisham was pulled aside by a teacher who asked him, "Why don't you eat pork?" Wernet has tried reporting incidents of harassment to the school district but her efforts went in vain. When she complained to the Texas Education Agency, Wernet was notified that discrimination based on religion is not covered by the agency; the website states, "Civil rights complaints allege that a public school discriminates against students on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex or disability in admission or access to, or treatment in the district's programs or activities."

Closer to home, Mohammed Nabulsi, a law student at University of Texas at Austin and member of the student organization Palestine Solidarity Committee, explained that PSC members are often heckled while engaging in campus activities. Of course, not all Palestinians are Muslim, just as all Muslims are not Arab, but bigots tend to equate being Muslim with being Arab. Students passing by "call us terrorists; this is besides the hostile looks we get.

"We often get allegations that we are a front for terrorism, the Muslim Brotherhood, or Hamas; we get this one often."

Last spring, a student supporter of Unify Texas, an anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) group at UT, took and circulated a Snapchat of a PSC public hearing, labeling the organization "ISIS." On the same night, the windshield of a PSC student member's car was smashed while parked in a garage in the West Campus area. The car had a "Free Palestine" sticker on its back bumper.

As an organization, Nabulsi explained, they avoid reporting incidents of harassment when they happen. "Dealing with administration is always an obstacle. It is usually more problems than solutions. Enough is the hassle the organization goes through to organize any event. The administration would make us sit down with administrators and sometimes UT police. They tell us it is standard procedure, but it is harassment," as it is not the case for other student organizations. Sara LeStrange, manager of communications at UT's Office of the Dean of Students, said, "Our [UT] policy and practice is to meet with student organizations for all outdoor events, and to request consultations with the UT Police Department for large-scale events, or events where counter-demonstrations are possible, in order to ensure safety for our students."

Senan Shaibani, a Muslim of Arab origin, student at UT, and PSC member, took part in a sit-in at UT that was not related to Palestine or religion last year. Shaibani was arrested along with other UT protesters. In jail, he was the only one who was strip-searched. In the intake area where the police processed arrested people, Shaibani went to a corner to pray. "I made sure I was not in anybody's way and that I was not bothering anyone." While he was kneeling in prayer, a police officer grabbed and picked him up and said, "What are you doing on my floor?" Shaibani was told he could not pray there and was moved to a separate cell for intoxicated suspects, in which he was kept for 12 hours with three drunk men. Commenting on Shaibani's incident, Roger Wade, senior public information officer at the Travis County Sheriff's Office, said, "If someone does something that appears to be disruptive, they are going to be taken out of that situation and put somewhere else where they won't cause disruption to other inmates. ... I do not know what that officer was thinking. Yet, as an agency we do not have anti-Muslim sentiment whatsoever. We are here simply to address the criminal charges that are brought against somebody."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Islamaphobia, Muslims, racism, Ahmed Mohamed, Palestinians

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