Signs torn down. A suite trashed. The Imam’s Qur’an stolen. The removal of the words “Enter here in peace and security.”
The Muslim Students Association (MSA) at Brandeis has dealt with isolated incidents of vandalism in recent years, though no individual person has ever been held responsible for the incidents. The most recent problem occurred a few weeks ago, when someone precisely cut out the words “Enter here in peace and security,” written in English under the words in Arabic, from a sign on the door leading to the MSA Suite in Usdan.
The Brandeis community has dealt with each incident well. Many students have expressed support, and administrators have installed card access to the room during the evening hours. In response to the most recent crime, they plan to install security cameras outside the door to the suite.
But even with an appropriate response, students in the MSA remain concerned about the event. Dr. Imam Talal Eid was the first to notice the sign missing, and he brought it up during Friday prayers. When no one claimed responsibility for the missing part of the sign, the matter was directed to Jamele Adams, dean of student life.
“We don’t know what were their intentions; it could have not been malicious,” said Alina Cheema ’15, co-president of the MSA. “We’re not offended, but we would like to know why they did it,” Ayesha Malik ’14, also co-president of the MSA, added.
The evidence points to a planned theft, as the plexiglass around the sign was unscrewed, the sign was cut with an Exacto knife and the plexiglass was then screwed back into place.
This isn’t the first incident the MSA has dealt with. In the 2009-2010 school year, the MSA suite itself was vandalized, as the door was always unlocked for any student who wanted a space to relax or pray in, similar to other religious groups.
“A student, or students, came in and vandalized the suite, threw around everything, broke things, from Imam Talal’s office. They took his Qur’an. On top of it being a sacred book, it had a lot of his notes in it,” Zoha Hussain ’14, a current member of the club, said. The notes were very important for the Imam, as he used them in speaking before Friday prayers each week.
“It was difficult to come into an MSA that felt like it already had an image on campus that felt maybe threatening, or as if people could vandalize the space. We are just like other students on campus. It made me more inclined to help show what Islam is on campus. As students, we should be respected as the other religious groups on campus,” Hussain said.
In a less severe, yet still significant, act, signs for Islam Awareness Week were removed overnight in both Spring 2012 and Spring 2013. Students had taped paper signs in the shape of “IAW” on the brick wall of Usdan overnight, and by morning they were removed.
“No one would talk to me directly. The rest of those signs were up there but nothing happened to them,” Hussain said. They later realized that the signs weren’t allowed without signatures, but after not getting a real response, Hussain felt that there was discrimination, especially since there were many other signs still on the bricks for weeks after.
“We’re not trying to blame people, these things aren’t our priority to deal with. Events like Islam Awareness Week are for everyone. We want to have students who don’t have the knowledge to learn about Islam as well. How do we get people to come to events, people who have negative perceptions? We just want to show through our actions who we are as Brandeis MSA,” Cheema said.
Although by themselves the incidents may not seem particularly horrifying, the students worry about what they might mean. They wonder how the MSA is perceived on campus and why other community members would choose to target their organization. “For us it’s hard because we don’t know if people are actually targeting us. There is that confusion, and we’re unsure how comfortable we can be on campus,” Cheema said.
The main purpose of the MSA is raise awareness, involve the community and give Muslim students a resource on campus.
The MSA has participated in multiple interfaith events on campus, coordinating with Hillel and BAASA. The Brandeis community has largely been supportive and respectful toward students of the MSA, including holding a peace vigil after the MSA suite was vandalized a few years ago.
“People don’t realize that dialogue can lead to actual education and can open their eyes, and also our eyes, to so many things. What does vandalism really do?” Hussain said.
Hussain and the other members of the MSA want to make sure students feel comfortable joining the MSA. They recalled how the MSA became a home for them, and helped them achieve a balance between faith and school. Participating in their faith has helped them to remember what is important in life, other than just school work and friends.
The MSA suite itself is difficult to find, as it is located in the lower floor of Usdan, past a bathroom and two sets of doors. While the card access may have been necessary to ensure vandalism does not occur inside their space again, the members worry that the presence may deter students from feeling comfortable. Space on campus may be difficult to come by for many student organizations, but Cheema and Malik expressed that a larger and more accessible space would be appreciated.
“Our faith is beautiful, and we don’t preach any type of violence. We would always respect every other faith,” Hussain said.
“I hope people realize the importance of having an MSA. I would love if anyone would come to Khutbah one day and listen to what Imam Talal lectures on, it usually has to do with equality or social justice and tolerance. We are all human beings and we should live happily together. We are a very peaceful organization, very accepting and very open to have dialogue,” Hussain said.