Muslim students in UK's Chapel Hill build an app to document 'Islamophobia' on campus

Published: October 13, 2017
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A makeshift memorial is made during a vigil at the University of North Carolina following the murders of three Muslim students on February 11, 2015 in Chapel Hill. PHOTO: AFP

A makeshift memorial is made during a vigil at the University of North Carolina following the murders of three Muslim students on February 11, 2015 in Chapel Hill. PHOTO: AFP

For the students and residents of Chapel Hill, Islamophobia is more than just the violent shooting; it’s an everyday experience which impacts the lives of the Muslim residents there, a UK publication  reported.

Hamza Butler, the former vice-president of UNC Chapel Hill’s Muslim Student Association had envisioned a kind of network of support and safety, and thus manufactured the Project Mawla. The project is an open-source, Web-based application released last December that allows students and residents of Chapel Hill to document anti-Muslim incidents.

Inspired the work of Ida B Wells, whose documentation of lynchings helped expose rampant racial violence in America at the turn of the century, Project Mawla is a “counterpoint to the systemically supported notion that Islamophobia neither exists nor affects the livelihood of American Muslims,” according to its website. The app is currently run by UNC Chapel Hill’s Muslim Student Association, one of the largest student groups on campus with over 300 members.

The app is currently run by UNC Chapel Hill’s Muslim Student Association, one of the largest student groups on campus with over 300 members.

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“Hate doesn’t just come out of nowhere,” said Fatema Ahmad, a member of the North Carolina–based advocacy group Muslims for Social Justice and a 2009 Duke University graduate. “Individual racist action does not just naturally happen without a system of cultural and institutional racism that surrounds people and allows someone to feel emboldened enough to commit a brutal murder like that.”

Butler, a 2016 UNC graduate, had been friends with Deah Barakat. He’d visited Barakat’s apartment the week before the Chapel Hill shooting and said he remembered hearing about his neighbor and that he had previously threatened Barakat with a gun.

“It’s very troubling that it’s the first place my mind went, when usually things like that should be shocking and so sudden you can’t even assume an explanation,” he said. “But looking within the context of racism and Islamophobia, it was like seeing a tape recorder play again and knowing that these were the usual factors involved.”

Americans still view Muslims the most negatively out of all other religious groups. After 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims were 17 times more common, and in 2011 they were still six times as common as they were before 2001.

In 2015, the number of hate crimes began to rise again, and in 2016, there was a 197 per cent increase in anti-Muslim hate groups.

“The reality is that anti-Muslimness is connected to other systems of violence,” Butler said. “When you treat hate crimes as isolated events, and when you create these high standards for them to prove, it completely takes away any foundation to prove something like that.”

As a result 52 per cent of all violent victimizations were not reported to the police between 2006 and 2010 according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Rather than reporting crimes to police, Project Mawla allows Muslims to report incidents to the Chapel Hill Muslim community. “It creates that space in which you’re going to your Muslim community and not the police or other state institutions.”

Because of this, the app not only documents incidents but, in doing so, helps educate locals about the prevalence of Islamophobia in their community.

Project Mawla also allows people to document disturbing incidents that don’t necessarily meet the definition of crimes: “No experience of mistreatment is ‘too small.’ No narrative of suffering, unweighted,” reads the website’s homepage.

That could mean being asked to prove that you are Muslim in order to be excused from an exam to celebrate a holiday, as Butler had to, or being made to feel like the token Muslim for classes that mentioned the Middle East, as UNC graduate Nicole Fauster experienced.

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In addition to educating people on Islamophobia, Project Mawla hopes to track and analyze the information gathered from the app to help other communities respond to incidents like these and to eventually publish a report with an interactive map of anti-Muslim incidents.

Though the app has yet to take off, it has received support from people across North Carolina’s Research Triangle and appears on UNC MSA’s website as a resource for Muslim students.

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