Iqra Zulfiqar, a Muslim freshman at Towson University, said she chose her school for the “vibe” — it felt welcoming.
So when five members of a church in Pennsylvania arrived on campus last month bearing signs saying Muslims are destined for “hellfire,” Zulfiqar said seeing hundreds of students peacefully counter-protesting was heartening.
“The response from students could not have been better,” said Zulfiqar, 18. “It was just pure unity.”
Students from the school’s Muslim community and other campus groups reaffirmed that unity April 24, less than a week later, with a rally hosted by the Muslim Student Association and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
The rally was organized in response to The Key of David Christian Center, a self-described nondenominational church that arrived on campus displaying signs declaring “Jesus or hellfire!” and promising hellfire to Muslims, gay people, “drunks,” “witches,” and the Pope, among other groups.
The Key of David protest, which began on campus and was moved to a public road, was met by hundreds of student counter-protesters who waved gay pride flags and chanted, “Love is love.”
Romesa Mustafa, president of the Muslim Student Association, said April 24 at the rally that outside influences aren’t the only forces at work – that even on a campus like Towson, full of students committed to diversity, there is work to do.
“What happened on [April 18] may have been an external affair, but we have our internal issues and we cannot deny them,” Mustafa said.
Ahead of the rally, Mustafa, a senior, said that while Muslim students generally feel safe on campus, racist comments made by the demonstrators brought fear for their safety.
About 100 people attended the rally at Freedom Square on campus April 24, including university President Kim Schatzel. They heard from speakers including an imam, a county administration representative, the leader of Hillel and from students.
Kyle Hobstetter, a university spokesman, said Schatzel was not speaking at the event because she wants to keep the focus on the students who organized it.
Zainab Chaudry, who spoke at Freedom Square, said CAIR has seen a spike in hate crimes targeting Muslims and other groups across the country. She is director of Maryland outreach for CAIR.
“It’s very clear that religious freedom and diversity is under attack in America,” Chaudry said. She had harsh words for the demonstrators on campus.
“The people who came to our campus [April 18] bearing hateful signs want to move our country backwards,” Chaudry said. “Yes, they have the First Amendment protected free speech right to demonstrate against groups like ours and people who look like us, but we also have the right to protest against the hatred and bigotry that is causing so many of our community members to live in fear.”
The counter-protest showed what students’ “values were about,” said Mahnoor Ahmed, a staff adviser for the Muslim Student Association in an interview before the rally. “They showed up for themselves and for each other.”
Even groups that were not targeted by the demonstrators came to counter-protest in solidarity, said Ahmed, associate director for student diversity and development at Towson. Those groups were present at the rally.
Pastor Laura Sinche of campus Christian group The Table spoke at the rally, saying the views Key of David espouse do not represent the Christianity she knows. Her religion is one of openness, she said, of welcoming more people to the table.
“As one who deeply believes in the Bible that my brothers were using against people as a means of hate, in that Bible I see as most focused on the love and hope that God brings,” Sinche said.
In addition to the unity rally, university spokesman Sean Welsh said other events celebrating diversity were planned for last week, including Pride Week and a diversity speaker series.
Lisa Bodziner, director of Towson Hillel, began April 24 by speaking about the story of Moses and tying it to her philosophy of “radical inclusivity.”
She concluded with a Jewish prayer for peace: “May justice roll down like the water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Zulfiqar, the freshman student, performed spoken word poetry about her identity as a Muslim and how she grapples with the portrayal of her faith as one of violence when she knows it as one of love. But it helped seeing the campus united against hate speech, she said.
“Seeing the unity, that’s what kept me grounded,” Zulfiqar said.