The Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at IUPUI were the host organization for SJP's Midwest Conference April 1-3. Other student chapters from around the Midwest visited the campus to share ideas surrounding their social justice movement. Non-violent and creative action, cross-movement solidarity and other issues were on the agenda.
Unfortunately, those attending the conference were witness to something other than "Hoosier hospitality."
On the last day of the conference, flyers and posters were discovered around the campus denouncing SJP's activities. But the vandalism went beyond simple rhetoric challenging the organization. The president of the IUPUI chapter was vilified in the process. The vandals called her a terrorist, defamed her picture and made threats toward her personally.
Around the country, Students for Justice in Palestine face opposition. The vision and mission of the organization — which is to see Palestinians free from Israeli occupation — is controversial on many levels reaching as high as the federal government. As an organization that supports a controversial ideal, members of SJP are used to being met with opposition. But this attack at IUPUI got very personal — so personal that the chapter president, Haneen, has become fearful for her own personal safety.
"I felt that IUPUI was a warm and welcoming place that allowed freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression," said Haneen in a statement released to the press April 8. "Unfortunately, my perspective has changed. I was recently harassed, blatantly lied about, slandered, discriminated against, and defamed!"
The intimidation and harassment reached far beyond just posters around campus. Through blog posts, social media and other internet traffic, Haneen's anonymous attackers have branded her a national security threat, speculating violence by citing other terrorist attacks like San Bernardino. As a result, a young girl who used to go to class, hang out with her friends and enjoy life as a college student has been much like the innocent women of supposed witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts circa 1692.
Fellow students, faculty and staff have come to Haneen's aid. Friends make sure she is never on campus alone and the faculty keeps a watchful eye. Chancellor Nasser Paydar spoke out about intolerance on campus a few days after the incident occurred.
"Recent events have underscored the need for me to remind the campus community that there is a place for all voices at IUPUI," said Paydar in a statement issued to the campus. " IUPUI is committed to providing forums for the free expression and exchange of ideas, including those we may not condone. Even when we vehemently disagree, we must strive to do so with mutual respect and civility. Open dialogue is central to academic freedom and our educational mission."
The statement went on to say that the university "abhors all forms of racism, bigotry and discrimination" and that everyone has to do their part to ensure everyone else's safety.
But some faculty, staff and certainly Haneen's friends didn't feel the situation was being taken as seriously as it should. Conflicting ideals and opinions is one thing, but personal and targeted attacks against one specific individual is quite another. The statements against Haneen have reached beyond her platform of peace and justice in Palestine. Comments about her make-up and her attire add sexism to the list of offenses, reaching beyond xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism. Haneen's supporters wanted stronger language from the administration because of the personal nature of the attacks.
Those united under #WeStandWithHaneen asked for the administration to more strongly condemn the attacks in the public arena, update the campus on the status of the investigation and to make assurances that any and all future acts of harassment, defamation and discrimination will not be tolerated.
"Although we encourage the free exchange of ideas and affirm the right of all university citizens to make their views known, we do not condone attacks against women, Muslims, or people of African descent," the group stated in a released statement. "Hate speech, defamation and discrimination have no place in our community."
A few days later, Paydar sent another statement to the students and faculty of the downtown Indianapolis campus. The new statement acknowledged Haneen as a person and a student who had been violated on the campus while giving an update on the investigation to determine who was responsible.
"The IU Police Department-Indianapolis and the Division of Student Affairs are conducting ongoing investigations in concert with state and federal authorities to determine who is behind these activities," said Paydar last week. "Additionally, the university has taken steps leading to the removal of some of the most inflammatory material from online hosting services. Only a part of IUPUI's response can be shared for fear of compromising the investigation."
There was also a reaffirmation of the university's position on open dialogue and free speech and stronger language about the safety of the students and their rights.
The investigation is ongoing as officials work to try and identify those responsible for the attacks on Haneen. It remains unclear as to the real motive for the harassment. A case could be made for Islamophobia, xenophobia (as Haneen is a Palestinian-American), racism and sexism. The attacks were against Haneen specifically and not just the SJP chapter, making the true motive hard to determine.
Indiana doesn't have specific legislation addressing hate crimes, but harassment, intimidation and defamation charges are possible if and when the perpetrators are ever discovered. The inclusion of federal authorities in the investigation allows for the consideration of federal level hate crime violations to be levied if and when appropriate.