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BU students are told to ‘speak out against Islamophobia’

Three prominent academics on Monday urged students at Boston University to combat anti-Islam bigotry, hours after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump grabbed headlines with a controversial plan to bar all Muslims from entering the United States.

"Speak out against discrimination, speak out against Islamophobia," said Pamela Lightsey, an associate dean and clinical assistant professor in the BU School of Theology, during the forum on Monday night.

She told more than 100 students who attended the event at the George Sherman Union that much of the anti-Islam rhetoric coming out of the presidential campaign is reminiscent of the anti-black bigotry that prevailed in American politics after desegregation.


"I think we're repeating history, or we're on the cusp of repeating history," Lightsey said, calling some of the presidential campaign discourse "very fascist."

She said there is also a racial component to anti-Islam bias in the United States, since many Muslims are people of color.

"This is about white privilege and the fear of losing the benefits thereof," she said. "This is racism 101 that we're dealing with here."

Lightsey was joined onstage by Susannah Heschel, a Jewish studies professor at Dartmouth College, and Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at BU.

The gathering was dubbed "After Paris: Anti-Muslim Backlash, What You Need to Know." It was organized to address the "troubling upsurge in anti-Muslim action in the USA and elsewhere" in the wake of recent terror attacks, according to posters for the event.

The forum was held hours after Trump, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, drew widespread criticism for his proposal to bar all Muslims from entering the country until authorities "can figure out what is going on."

The three panelists urged the students to push back against notions that Muslim extremists speak for an entire faith community, noting that Christians, Jews, and others have used religious arguments to justify violence throughout history.


Heschel said that "it's not Islam that makes somebody decide, 'I want to kill someone.' It doesn't work that way," even if some Muslims have "hijacked" the faith to suit their purposes.

"What kind of a person has a 6-month-old baby and then goes and kills," said Heschel, apparently referring to the couple who murdered 14 people last week in a terror attack in San Bernardino, Calif., that authorities have linked to Islamic radicalism. "This is a sick person."

But during a question-and-answer session, one student said that "we have to be able to criticize [radical] ideas," and he expressed frustration for what he said was a tendency among liberals to brand anyone who criticizes Islam as a bigot.

Prothero responded that "the presence of this conversation right now is a refutation of what you just said," adding that "dangerous" arguments in favor of violence must be rejected by "Muslims and by non-Muslims."

Lightsey referenced the massacre in June of nine black members of a South Carolina church who were gunned down by a white assailant and asked, "where are the apologetics [from] white Christians on this?"

Conversely, she said, she is saddened by a "burden" that Muslims often feel to respond "any time one individual, an individual, [commits] a horrendous act."

The panelists also encouraged students to start dialogue groups on campus to speak with people of different faiths and perspectives to promote understanding across cultures.


In addition, Heschel cautioned attendees to remain on guard against "stupidity" and "falsehoods" in the public arena.

"A lot of Americans have acquired some kind of, I don't know, disease and their brains have fallen out," she said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.