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RUSA passes bill about Islamophobia, amends, tables bill about anti-Palestinian behavior

On Thursday, members of the public and the Rutgers University Student Assembly debated the passage of two bills pertaining to Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism, one of which passed with unanimous support.  – Photo by Arishita Gupta

Last week, the Rutgers University Student Assembly deliberated two bills, "Defining and Combating Islamophobia Act of 2024" and "A Resolution to Counteract Anti-Palestinian Racism."

Authored by the Assembly's Academic Affairs Chair Fauzan Amjad, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, the Defining and Combating Islamophobia Act was passed during this session.

The Resolution to Counteract Anti-Palestinian Racism, authored by Amjad, Livingston Representative Ziad Burghli, a Rutgers Business School first-year, and Pharmacy Governing Council Internal Vice President Omar Abuattieh, an Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy sophomore, was tabled for the next meeting, which the next Assembly will lead.

The Defining and Combating Islamophobia Act has five articles that collectively define Islamophobia, issue a statement from the Assembly demonstrating support of the University's Muslim student community, endorse relevant government legislation pertaining to the topic and outline actionable steps for the Assembly to take.

Amjad said the presented definition of Islamophobia was taken from a New Jersey Senate Bill and the House of Commons in the U.K., detailing situations that would constitute as racism against Muslim people. The bill also explains the actions the Assembly would take to actively defy Islamophobia, which include providing educational resources, posting on social media and performing other legislative activities.

The bill comes in the wake of a recent break-in and vandalism of the Center for Islamic Life at Rutgers University (CILRU) on the Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr, as previously reported by The Daily Targum. According to Amjad, the destruction of a safe space for Muslim students on campus and instances similar to this one are why his proposal is so pertinent.

"Really, what this bill does is define Islamophobia, and when some type of hate crime happens, can we determine that was an act of Islamophobia?" Amjad said. "One of the issues we have in the Muslim community is that we have a lack of data … because we don't really have a definition for people to classify something as Islamophobia, so this (bill) is the first step to that."

Amjad said the bill does not infringe on the First Amendment right to free speech, a critique the bill has received. It does not prohibit people from criticizing the Islamic faith or its followers if they wish to do so.

When asked how this bill would operate if a speaker known for critiquing Islam was invited to campus, Amjad said he was a proponent of these presentations, so long as students can exercise their rights to free speech and protest in response.

"I support free speech," Amjad said, noting the presenters' discussion should still be in accordance with University guidelines. "I support it even if I hate the speech."

After adding an amendment that clarified the Assembly's support of federal bills without attacking free speech, the body's members unanimously voted to pass the Defining and Combating Islamophobia Act of 2024.

The Resolution to Counteract Anti-Palestinian Racism, which mirrors counteractions taken toward other forms of xenophobia, such as the bill passed to define Hinduphobia, faced more opposition from members of the Assembly and the public in attendance alike due to a portion of its definition of anti-Palestinian rhetoric.

The bill uses a definition from the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association (ACLA), which provides a list of examples of anti-Palestinian acts in accordance with the following definition.

"Anti-Palestinian racism is a form of anti-Arab racism that silences, excludes, erases, stereotypes, defames or dehumanizes Palestinians or their narratives," the bill reads.

The acts that come under this definition span from denying the occurrence of the Nakba, the name given to the period in the late 1940s when Palestinians were displaced or the indigeneity of this group, to the exclusion, defamation or mistreatment of Palestinians.

The ACLA's definition of anti-Palestinian behavior also makes an example out of, "defaming Palestinians and their allies with slander, such as being inherently antisemitic, a terrorist threat/sympathizer or opposed to democratic values," according to the ACLA.

This segment of the definition drew dissent and was ultimately cut from the bill after the floor opened to public comment, during which each speaker was given one minute to advocate for their views on the bill.

The public comments portion of the event required the suspension of the Assembly's Standing Rule 3.4, which allows non-Assembly members to speak during the event. Amjad and Burghli alternated responding to dissent around this element of the bill.

In response to one critique, Amjad and Burghli said they would not be able to comment on whether the bill indicates any bias on part of the Assembly.

Dissidents said the bill, as written at the time, would allow acts such as a Palestinian student holding up a swastika to be labeled as antisemitic or racist, while proponents said Palestinian students and allies are simply trying to present symbols of the Palestinian cause, such as the keffiyeh, without criticism.

"A Palestinian student on campus should not be called antisemitic simply for wearing aspects of stuff from the Palestinian culture," Amjad said.

Proponents also defended the establishment of specific examples of anti-Palestinian acts by saying they are drawn from real-life acts committed against the Palestinian community.

"Palestinians and Palestinian supporters are accused of antisemitism," Amjad said. "Palestine supporters are accused as supporters of Hamas inherently, and they are accused of not supporting democratic values. We hear this all the time."

Additionally, dissidents posed questions of whether denying the indigeneity of Palestinian students who claim their indigenous identity in relation to disputed towns between Israel and Palestine, as well as denial of a right to return are inherently anti-Palestinian.

The questions pose a larger discussion when considering a two-state solution, dissidents said.

Ultimately, the language related to slander was amended to simply say "without cause" in a closed vote. The divide between affirming and refuting the amendment was tight, with 14 and 13 votes, respectively. Four other voting members of the Assembly abstained.

The meeting closed off with remarks from external representatives, one of whom addressed increasing polarization on campus, especially in the wake of the Assembly's referendum vote. 

The Assembly's School of Arts and Sciences Senator Taylor Shaw, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, said antisemitism and Islamophobia have risen since the vote, specifically referencing the plastering of a poster with a Jewish student's picture on it with the caption "Vote 'Yes!' to Divest" in her own residence hall and the recent vandalism at CILRU.

She said the Assembly's decision to put divestment, a measure she said does not actually contribute to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, on a ballot indicates how the Assembly has deviated from its responsibility to quash exclusion. 

"The only thing this referendum has done is further divide our campus," Shaw said. "As a Jewish student, I'm seeking to see (the Assembly's) involvement in the division amongst the student body and the behavior that has become tolerated on this campus since October. It's time (the Assembly) and the administration opened their eyes to the extent of the impact of their actions."

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