Muslim Students Association holds ‘vigil for peace’ to remember those slain in recent attacks

By Brendan Deady

(Shannon Broderick/Daily Collegian)
(Shannon Broderick/Daily Collegian)

Roughly 80 people gathered at the University of Massachusetts Friday night for a “vigil for peace” organized by the Muslim Students Association in honor of those slain in Paris, Beirut and Nigeria last week.

Organizers from the MSA said they wished to pledge their support to the victims of those attacks, spread a message of peace and refute the narratives that group all practitioners of Islam under an umbrella of violence.

Minutes before the 5 p.m. start, Scott J. Nielsen, a local businessman and advisor to the Jewish Leaders in Business within the Isenberg School of Management, spoke with some members of the MSA and the Student Government Association inside the Student Union. He commended the groups for organizing the event but acknowledged the difficulty of combating deep-rooted stereotypes within American culture.

“I am so impressed but it’s going to be hard. Do not give up, you will persevere. It’s easy to make enemies, they sprout up like weeds in a garden,” Nielsen told them. “If you want to plant a tree that bears fruit, it’ll take a long time and a lot of work.”

Outside, small groups appeared to fill in the remaining gaps in the oval of people that had formed in front of the Student Union in the fading daylight. A line of MSA members held a white banner with the Eiffel Tower encircled in a peace symbol and a message to “pray for the world.”

MSA members handed out plastic candles to attendees. One by one the faces around the oval were cast in an orange silhouette, each staring intently towards the banner.

Jawad Awan, vice president of the MSA, opened by offering his thanks to all those in attendance for coming together to show solidarity with the victims of violence in Paris, Beirut and Nigeria. Awan, a neuroscience and journalism major, complimented UMass for fostering a safe and supportive environment for Muslim students.

“Thank you for support in helping us counter the narratives that we’re facing in the media today,” he said.

Awan continued by challenging the view that all practicing Muslims are a homogenous group. He explained that MSA organized the event to condemn the violence perpetrated on behalf of Islam and to reiterate that their religion is peaceful.

“Mosques across the country sent out letters following the Paris attacks condemning that violence,” he said. “I’m still unsure of that decision, that by default we should be forced to prove we have nothing to do with those attacks. We don’t, but unfortunately those are the narratives that we face today.”

Awan passed the microphone to SGA president Sïonan Barrett. Barrett explained that she possesses dual citizenship in France and that many of her friends and family still live in the country, although none were injured in the attacks.

Following a moment of silence, Barrett offered the allegiance of SGA and the student community on campus to the MSA, vowing to help fight the narratives placed upon all Muslims.

“We are here to honor those lost lives and to respond to the attacks not with fear but love and compassion for each other,” Barrett said.

Shelly Perdomo, interim assistant vice chancellor for advocacy, inclusion and support programs at UMass stepped forward and greeted the crowd with “as-salamu alaykum,” a Muslim greeting of peace.

Perdomo buttressed the comments made by Awan and Barrett, condemning the recent violence as well as the profiles forced upon Muslims in American media and culture.

“The backlash against Muslim community is not imagined, it’s a lived reality for students and faculty on this campus everyday,” Perdomo said.

Perdomo said that responses in the aftermath of terrorist attacks need to move away from anger and fear. She advised Muslim students that the best response to these narratives is to “model and demonstrate” what a humane religion Islam is, to model and demonstrate how peaceful and vibrant the Muslim community is compared to those who “spread fear and hate”.

“There is more that unites us than there is that separates us. We are one people,” Perdomo said.

Abdifatah Omar, MSA president, concluded the vigil by sharing a letter from the clergy at the Newman Center who offered allegiance and solidarity with Muslim students and the Muslim religion. Omar held the letter in the air and said that such actions of extension and compassion are what students need to hear.

After the ceremony Omar and Anwan explained that first and foremost the vigil was to honor the victims of the attacks. It was also an action to publicly distinguish themselves from the image that terrorists create and the media shape.

“This was an opportunity for us to show ourselves,” he said. “Students on this campus aren’t really exposed to Islam, if so it’s usually through the media, which are only the outliers of the (many) peaceful people who practice this religion.”

Anwan said he and others are fortunate that UMass has been a supportive and accepting environment. He hasn’t experienced any personal backlash, but acknowledged that a handful of hateful posts had appeared on the anonymous social media site Yik Yak. He said that he felt fortunate to experience support at UMass, considering students have experienced instances of serious harassment at campuses as close by as Connecticut.

At the end of the vigil, Anwan instructed the attendees to leave their candles on the ground in the space where they had stood, to preserve the oval that the group had just created.

Brendan Deady can be reached at [email protected]