Speakers heckled for talking about Islamophobia at Florida university event


Anti-Islam protesters crashed an event held by Muslim students at a Florida university, heckling speakers including an 11-year-old girl.

Cars with Trump bumper stickers were the first sign of trouble outside Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Boca Raton on Monday. As I reached the entrance of the building, four police officers with black vests and guns on their waists stood by, scanning with their eyes everyone who walked in. As the room filled up, it was hard to tell protesters from participants in the audience. There were more than nine police officers in the room.

FAU’s Muslim Student Association (MSA) had organized the event, which was open to the public, to battle Islamophobia in the United States. “Hopefully everyone will leave today with Islam-no-phobia,” said Deema Gichi, a Syrian American student at FAU, to the audience of 250.

But that was not the case. As an 11-year-old named Khaoula stood on the stage to speak about her experiences with Islamophobia, some protesters in the audience began to laugh.

“Do I look any different from you all?” asked Khaoula, who lives in West Palm Beach, with the intention of showing everyone in the room that she is a typical American kid. “Yes, you do!” the hecklers responded.

She then went on to ask, “Do I look like a bad person? Do I look like a terrorist?” Other audience members answered in a loud voice “No! No!” to overtake the negative comments of the protesters sitting in the back.

“Khaoula’s general message was that there is nothing different about her. Her core values and beliefs are universal, and she’s just a normal American kid. But some people say that she’s not because she wears the hijab or because her parents are Moroccan,” said Ammar Ahmed, 22, one of the organizers of the MSA event.

Khaoula ended her speech by raising the American flag and saying, “God bless America.”

“It’s a public university. We live in a pluralistic society. We wanted everyone to come and to have their questions answered,” said Ahmed about the intentions behind the event.

Attorney Maha El Kolalli and Deema Gichi an FAU senior were the only women on the panel. Gichi talked about her experience as a 13-year-old Muslim female being profiled by airport security. She said she was separated from her family and taken to TSA’s lunchroom for a private patdown because TSA’s private rooms were not available. “The woman was treating me as if I was wearing a bomb under my jacket. I was a kid!” recalled Gichi. “She patted my head and asked what that was, so I said it’s my hair!”

El Kolalli, who wears the hijab, also shared an Islamophobic experience at an airport. “ I was pregnant and asked the TSA agent not to use the wand because it will hurt the baby. I asked for a female agent for a patdown instead,” said El Kolalli. With tears in her eyes, she said, “Then I don’t know why he thought it was funny to put the wand directly on my baby.”

Rabbi Barry Silverman; Shafayat Mohamed, a Muslim scholar; attorney Wilfredo Ruiz; and Professor Bassem Al Halabi at FAU were also panelists who added to the conversation of battling Islamophobia.

FAU’s MSA members are already planning for another event during Ramadan of this year.

Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary “#ChicagoGirl.”

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