The bomb threats that were delivered to five American universities (UT Austin, North Dakota State, Valparaiso, Lousiana State, and UT Brownsville) in the last five days should be an occasion to consider the world that we live in and how it affects us. College campuses have never really been immune from broader historical forces nor have they been protected from violence. But what is striking about the conversation that has emerged in the tense atmosphere following what were largely hoaxes or impossible bomb plots is how remarkably flat it is. Once the terms “Arab” or “Islam” or their synonyms are thrown around, there seems to be little need to think about what is going on here or why.
This last part bears underlining because it is the one claim that few are willing to concede in liberal America. “Islam” and “Arabs” seem only to appear in the media or in conversation when the subject is about violence or terrorism with the effect that the terms have all become interchangeable. Intelligent conversation then stops, the participants nod in agreement: of course, those Muslims are always up to something. It was perhaps convenient that angry Arabs were on the streets protesting as fake bomb threats were being made.
But even when it came to the protests in the middle East, we encountered the same flat narrative. Angry Muslims responding irrationally to the liberal values of the West, with the repetition of the vague “anti-American” label. Few were talking about the film and the provocative circumstances of its production (the connections of the producer to far-right, Islamophobic organizations, for instance). Even fewer were talking about the cynical way that certain marginalized Muslim organizations were using the controversy around the film to reignite their celebrity. These protests, like the bomb threats, were supposed to be proof of the truism that passes for scrutiny: Muslims are illiberal and dangerous.
That such intellectual laziness happens is not surprising. We live in a country where one Presidential candidate will not be photographed next to a Muslim and the other cannot be bothered to learn how to pronounce a single Arab or Muslim name correctly. Both are in favor of bombing almost any country that dares to have a Muslim majority. That mosques are routinely vandalized and torched without any mention only serves to highlight the quiet acceptance of this convenient political equation. Muslims are merely tolerated here: they suffer American multiculturalism at their own peril.
That such intellectual laziness happens at a college campus is simply maddening.
At two different University of Texas campuses, the specter of Islam was raised as the source of two very different plots. In Austin, a caller identified by one UT staff person as having a “light Middle-Eastern accent” and connections to al-Qa’ida made a bomb threat. Despite recognizing early on that the call was likely a hoax and taking emergency measures only as a precaution, the university still released details about the caller’s supposed identity. The possibility that the hoax could have encompassed the accent and the al-Qa’ida affiliation did not stop the administration from defending their racial profile of the caller.
At the University of Texas, Brownsville, another bomb threat, also a hoax, was made by Henry Dewitt McFarland, a veteran of the US Marines who served time in Afghanistan, when he called into the National Veteran’s Crisis Hotline. McFarland, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, was considering conversion to Islam. He threatened to blow up a classmate, who made derogatory comments about his new religion, with a plate bomb that he claimed to have in his apartment. The authorities found nothing in his apartment to suggest that the threat was serious.
In both instances, the story required the sensationalism that only Islam and Muslims could provide. Neither the story about exam-related hoaxes (incidentally, earlier in the week fire alarms were pulled in eight buildings at UT Austin) nor the story about soldiers returning with PTSD from their time abroad are the way that we talk about our state of permanent insecurity on college campuses, even though those stories better help to unpack the new realities of college life. Sans Islam, we would be forced to ask much harder questions about the skyrocketing costs of higher education or about the conditions under which American soldiers labor. We might be forced to ask why American drones violate national sovereignty and kill with impunity. Much easier that we talk about Muslims.
These stories stopped asking questions at a certain point because the mistaken belief that Islam and terrorism are synonymous means that there is no more story to tell. And when critics raise the problems with this interpretation—that it eliminates the deadliness American foreign policy, that it lumps all Arabs and Muslims into one impossibly large category, that violent protests are almost always the work of fringe groups—we are accused of naively pandering to the protocols of political correctness.
Most bomb threats at college campuses are usually connected to two things: exams and major (usually sporting) events. Most colleges and universities have well developed protocols to deal with bomb threats because they have been a regular part of their operations. One University of Texas official explained that UT gets 4 or 5 of these every year. Most go unannounced. In the four years that I have worked at UT, I have only been evacuated once. This is not to say that we ought not take bomb threats seriously. But we ought to ask how we determine which ones we do and why.
The majority of the insecurity that we face on college campuses has very little to do with Islam. The events of Virginia Tech a few years ago serve as a constant reminder that colleges and universities are not ivory towers disconnected from real issues. We might add that the incessant cuts to university budgets and the rising costs of tuition have also produced new, difficult conditions for everyone on campus. That there are fewer health and psychological services to deal with the problems that these create is at least part of the problem, too.
There is another story that we are not telling, as well. Since 9/11, every Muslim organization on a college campus has been audited by the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security at least once; at UCLA, Muslims are the subject of constant law enforcement surveillance. Most Muslim students keep to themselves and associate only with other Muslims as a way to defend themselves from the racism that comes from unexpected areas. Few speak out about it because law enforcement has been woefully inadequate about doing anything.
Later this week, the ACLU is testifying at Congressional hearings about the failure of law enforcement agencies to do anything when credible threats were made against Muslims and mosques. In one incident in Antioch, CA, authorities were notified of threats against the mosque but failed to do anything about it. It was then set on fire in 2007. The authorities have even refused to call it a hate crime. In the interests of full disclosure, I am named in the ACLU’s documents. In 2007, death threats were made against me. The ACLU discovered that my political activism was ostensibly the reason that law enforcement did not investigate the death threats or take them seriously. There is a reason that we don’t have good numbers on the real harassment, discrimination, violence, and fear that Muslims and Arabs in the US feel.
There are real stories to tell here and real questions to ask, questions, which when answered, might lead to real solutions to the insecurities we all face on college campuses. But the story about Islam and terror is too convenient. It lets everyone off the hook. And it keeps everyone permanently insecure.