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NewsApr 19, 2019

Reflecting on far-right extremism and everyday racism

In April forum, Lesley community discusses global rise of race-related violence

A photo of a large audience in Alumni Hall listening to a panel of speakers during the day.

(An article submitted by Assistant Professor Nafisa Tanjeem.)

In response to the Christchurch mosque shootings that claimed the lives of 50 people in New Zealand in March, the Lesley community came together to reflect on the continuing rise of white nationalist violence, xenophobia and racism — locally and globally.

More than 60 students and faculty and staff members attended a community roundtable in Alumni Hall on Friday, April 5, titled “The global rise of far-right extremism: Where do we go from here?”

The event began with the screening of two-time Emmy and Peabody Award-winning director Deeyah Khan’s documentary, “White Right: Meeting the Enemy.” In the documentary, the British-Norwegian Muslim filmmaker of Punjabi and Pashtun descent is shown with far-right and alt-right leaders in the United States to investigate who those people are and why they embrace violent xenophobic ideologies.

Moderated by Assistant Professor Nafisa Tanjeem, the roundtable engaged the community in critical conversations on right-wing extremism, its local and global manifestations, and how this shapes experiences of Lesley students.

Student panelist Rianne Elsadig questioned which privileges made it possible for Khan to be able to sit with white nationalist groups, have conversations, and have some of the far-right leaders change their minds.

A panel of 5 speakers behind a table in Alumni Hall in front of a screen.
(L to R): Dr. Rakhshanda Saleem, Dr. Michael Illuzzi, Dr. Arlene Dallalfar, Najifa Tanjeem, and Jocelyn Martinez.

“As a black Muslim woman who wears a hijab, would I get the same kind of response if I interviewed these people?” posed Elsadig, a sociology major.

Student Najifa Tanjeem, an environmental studies major and aspiring filmmaker, talked about the everyday trauma and struggles of Muslim immigrants she came to know while interviewing people for a documentary on historical and contemporary racism against immigrants. Tanjeem discussed how her Muslim interviewees reported being detained at airports for having Arabic names and wearing hijabs. She also said a fellow Lesley student, who was Muslim and a citizen of one of the countries affected by the Trump administration’s travel ban, had to drop out of school because the ban had the effect of nullifying her international-student status.

Global studies major Jocelyn Martinez also indicated that the Lesley community is not immune to white supremacy and far-right extremism. She pointed out that students of color are often burdened with the expectation to lead change that the institution fails to initiate.

Associate Professor of Counseling and Psychology Rakhshanda Saleem echoed Martinez’s concern and argued that liberals emphasize better individual morals and choices as a solution to societal ills but ignore the need for structural and systemic changes. Dr. Saleem said this is reflected in institutional promotion of a liberal “feel-good, optimistic, and non-threatening” notion of diversity that does not disrupt and dismantle white supremacy. She called for “decolonizing” our thought processes and institutions to challenge oppressive power structures.

Associate Professor of Political Science Michael Illuzzi pointed out that the cause of the rise of extremism is fear and suffering, which result from global economic arrangements producing big winners and losers. He said,It will get worse before it gets a chance to get better, but it won’t get better unless we lay the groundwork for change.”  

Illuzzi urged students to address injustice by joining labor rights and immigrant rights movements and climate change advocacy, organizing against voter ID laws, fighting gerrymandering, and mobilizing support for vulnerable populations.

A group of men and women lined up to pose for a photograph in Alumni Hall
Dr. Illuzzi, Dr. Dallalfar, Dr. Saleem, Jocelyn Martinez, Dr. Tanjeem, Rianne Elsadig, Najifa Tanjeem

Professor Emerita of Sociology Arlene Dallalfar criticized U.S. foreign policies that she said promote war and violence through what she sees as questionable alliances with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. Dallalfar said the United States is failing to serve as a neutral broker in supporting the two-state solution and peace talks in the Middle East. She pointed out that educational institutions have a significant role in building and nurturing alliances with peace and justice advocates across Massachusetts, nationally, and internationally.

During a Q&A session, students and faculty from the Lesley community expressed frustration about structural and everyday racism and micro-aggressions that students of color face on campus. Students suggested that students with privilege should take the responsibility of educating themselves on racial and structural discrimination. Further recommendations included moving beyond the tokenistic and market-driven use of the language of diversity and inclusion at Lesley, revising curriculum to bring perspectives from the margins to the mainstream, and institutionally disavowing the Canary mission that targets Palestinian and Black Lives Matter activists.

The event was hosted by the Social Sciences Division in our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. All photos courtesy of Dr. Nafisa Tanjeem.