Sunday, April 17, 2016

Growing Islamophobia in the US and its impact on the sciences

by Salman Hameed

I came to the US in 1989. Despite the Afghan war (oh the one with the Soviets), many people I encountered had little idea about the exact location of Pakistan. So I had a prepared answer: It is between Iran (which they knew well because of the hostage crisis) and India. That worked well. Unfortunately, things are a bit different now and the tide of rising Islamophobia in the US is not only sad and dangerous, but it will also impact the sciences as well. So three things here:

First, a UC Berkley student was booted off the Southwest flight for speaking Arabic! Yes - a woman reported him to be a threat and he was asked by an airline employee, why was he speaking Arabic. From NYT:
A college student who came to the United States as an Iraqi refugee was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight in California earlier this month after another passenger became alarmed when she heard him speaking Arabic. 
The student, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a senior at the University of California, Berkeley,
was taken off a flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Oakland on April 6 after he called an uncle in Baghdad to tell him about an event he attended that included a speech by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. 
“I was very excited about the event so I called my uncle to tell him about it,” he said.
He told his uncle about the chicken dinner they were served and the moment when he got to stand up and ask the secretary general a question about the Islamic State, he said. But the conversation seemed troubling to a nearby passenger, who told the crew she overheard him making “potentially threatening comments,” the airline said in a statement. 
Mr. Makhzoomi, 26, knew something was wrong as soon as he finished his phone call and saw that a woman sitting in front of him had turned around in her seat to stare at him, he said. She headed for the airplane door soon after he told his uncle that he would call again when he landed, and qualified it with a common phrase in Arabic, “inshallah,” meaning “god willing.” 
“That is when I thought, ‘Oh, I hope she is not reporting me,’ because it was so weird,” Mr. Makhzoomi said. 
That is exactly what happened. An Arabic-speaking Southwest Airlines employee of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent came to his seat and escorted him off the plane a few minutes after his call ended, he said. The man introduced himself in Arabic and then switched to English to ask, “Why were you speaking Arabic in the plane?”
Read the full story here.

This is not the only incident. There have been at least five instances just this year where a passenger has been removed from the plane for being "suspicious". What impact do you think it will have on Muslim students coming to the US to study or for Muslim research collaborator? And remember, you don't even have to be a Muslim - you just have to look and sound like you are from the Middle East. And if we are hearing this many high-profile instances, then there must be far more low level of Islamophobic episodes taking place every month. And I cannot imagine what would be happening to people who have a beard (the non-hipster type :) ) or if you wear a hijab.

Of course, much of this is also due to the political rhetoric or Trump and Ted Cruz (don't forget Cruz - I think he is far more dangerous than Donald Trump). This past week's Nature has an article that talks about the possible impact on science. It starts with Razi Nalim, who is Associate Dean of Research at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. I have had a chance to meet him as well and he is a genuinely nice person and passionate about science:
Razi Nalim has lived in the United States for 30 years. An engineer at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, he often travels around the world to recruit science and engineering students to his university. But last week, on the cusp of a recruitment trip to India, he hesitated when asked whether he would still encourage foreign, Muslim students to work or study in the United States. 
“I would still say the opportunity for doing cutting-edge science here is unmatched,” said Nalim, who is Muslim. “Where I think I would caution people to think more carefully is
longer term: where would they want to live and raise a family? That’s a harder question to answer.” 
For Nalim and others, the roots of such concerns are apparent. In December, US presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has campaigned against immigration, boasted that he would ban Muslims from entering the country if elected. (On 30 March, Trump — now the Republican front runner — said that he would make exceptions for some Muslims, notably his wealthy Muslim friends.) 
Science advocates worry that Trump’s broader anti-immigration stance could pose a threat to US research dominance. Roughly 5% of all students in the United States hail from other countries — including more than 380,000 people studying science, engineering, technology or mathematics. “We’ve always been a nation which has welcomed scientific brainpower from other countries,” says Mary Woolley, president of Research!America, a science-advocacy group in Alexandria, Virginia. “We don’t want that to turn around now.”
The article also mentions our friend Ehab Abouheif from McGill University:
But that rhetoric is having an effect, says Ehab Abouheif, a developmental biologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who is Muslim. On a recent trip to be interviewed for a position in the United States, recruiters’ “constant question was, ‘Are you really sure you would want to come?’” he says. “My scientist colleagues are really scared.” 
To Abouheif, who fondly remembers completing his PhD and his postdoc in the United States, the current climate is surreal. “If you are trying to stop Muslims from coming in, it means that the ones who are there already are not going to feel comfortable either,” he says. “It would be a shame to alienate this big swathe of society.”
This is already happening - and this is not just a Muslim issue and should be of concern to everyone. On this note it is good to remember how 120000 Japanese Americans were detained during World War II and placed in concentration camps (see the video below about the problem in using "internment" for this case) - and the legal system was okay with that. Here is an excellent discussion at Democracy Now:

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