U of Central Florida school shooting alert reinforces Islamophobia

In response to a complaints of an allegedly armed person in the main campus library, authorities at the University of Central Florida (UCF) blasted out an email alert (“POSSIBLE MIDDLE EASTERN GUN MAN/WOMAN”) that assumed the person’s ethnic background but failed to identify anything else, including gender or clothing. This is what Islamophobia looks like. The University’s follow-up to the incident was just as irresponsible.

On April 26, a Muslim woman was allegedly spotted praying or reading from the Qur’an in a stairwell at the main campus library. (The Orlando Sentinel reported she might actually have even been crying, perhaps over a difficult exam.) Many observant Muslims utilize these stairwells or other secluded areas to pray as it offers a bit of privacy which can go a long way in a setting where anything remotely “Middle Eastern” is automatically assumed to be violent or insidious. Ironically, this is the opposite of what happened.

At least one student made a social media post identifying the woman’s belongings as a gun. Others, presumably following up on the false social media update, called the police who were quickly dispatched to the scene. As the library evacuation was underway, UCF’s emergency response team sent out a campus-wide alert urging the community to “avoid the area”.

The University sent out an email the following afternoon to update the community on how the situation unfolded. The administration credited the UCF Police Department for their swift response but made it a point to mention that the response wasn’t perfect since an officer’s weapon accidentally discharged while he was securing it in his vehicle.

This was, however, the only thing the University took issue with. In fact, the administration went on to commend the students who had the “courage to report what they considered at the time to be suspicious activity”. There was no rebuke of the ignorance or of the assumptions made. There was no criticism of the initial alert which identified the individual solely by their assumed ethnic background and nothing else.

There are very real problems here and the University is shying away from addressing them. I will do my best to spell them out.

1. The University sent an alert based on a subjective and possibly false description of an individual. The more effective thing to do, particularly during a real crisis, would be to identify the person by the color of their shoes, the logo on their sweatshirt, the shape of their backpack, the color of their hair, or any other objective and clear detail that both avoids stereotypes and aids others in making an accurate identification of the supposed threat. Instead, because it makes more sense to associate Middle Eastern-looking people with violence, the Campus Safety team went ahead with the unconfirmed description and, knowingly or unknowingly, fed into the mass anti-Islam rhetoric gripping our nation.

2. Islam is not confined to the Middle East. There are “Middle Eastern-looking people” who pray and “Middle Eastern-looking people” who don’t pray, just as there are non-Middle Easterners who pray or don’t pray. Seeing someone in prayer and assuming they’re from the Middle East is crude and ignorant, and this has no place at an institution of higher learning that celebrates diversity and understanding.

3. In effect, the initial alert (and the University’s attempt to shake it off) once again reinforces false stereotypes and puts Muslims and other people of color in the crosshairs. Wishing students and faculty to “take a deep breath” and “focus on a successful end to the semester” does not compensate for the very real consequences Muslims face and will likely to continue to face. So many identifiably Muslim students frequently look over their shoulders when they walk. Others have removed their hijab entirely out of fear of some kind of retaliation. Still others have been forced to endure anti-Islam hate speech plastered throughout their campuses that is defended by campus administrations as “freedom of expression”. The University’s irresponsible way of alerting the community to the possibility of a threat did less to safeguard the community and more to target students who are already vulnerable.

4. In an analysis of the data compiled by Mother Jones on mass shootings in the United States from 1982 to 2016, 60% of shooters were white. The stereotype that an allegedly Muslim student is more likely to commit a school shooting is simply inaccurate.

5. Encouraging students to report suspicious activity is important. However, commending students for reporting fellow students engaged in a simple act of worship and then urging students to continue phoning these in only makes the campus less inclusive and more hostile towards Muslims and others who wish to utilize the supposedly safe spaces of the University for a spiritual and mental boost. In other words, the University is effectively condoning students who view Muslims and their actions as suspicious. Is the goal, then, for Muslims to go into hiding? Should they stop praying altogether?

The University of Central Florida needs to be held accountable. Call it a gaffe, call it shortsighted, call it whatever you want. But by ignoring the problem and even praising students’ “courage” for being suspicious of Muslims, the University is playing a critical role in the Islamophobia that permeates our culture today.

As a Muslim student at this University, I am disappointed not so much by the students but by the administration that expects to be held at the highest of standards.

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