Muslim students fear for future after knife attack at Ohio State

A Somali American student rammed a car into a crowd and slashed victims before police fatally shot him.

Reuters/Handout: Kevin Stankiewicz
Reuters/Handout: Kevin Stankiewicz

Abdul Razak Artan, a third-year student in logistics management, sits on the Oval in an August 2016 photo provided by The Lantern, student newspaper of Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, U.S. on November 28, 2016.

Muslims attending Ohio State University fear retaliation and harassment after a fellow Muslim student attacked and injured nine people at campus on Monday morning.

The attack comes amid a sharp rise in harassment against Muslim students since the election of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. The president-elect maintains that refugees from Muslim countries pose a grave threat and supports immigration policy that would keep them out of the United States. He will take over the White House on January 20, 2017. 

“We are shocked and in disbelief, mainly worried about the backlash this could cause and the profiling it will create,” one Somali-American student, who declined to give her name, told TRT World

The attacker, identified by authorities as 18-year-old Abdul Razak Ali Artan, was a refugee from Somalia. He drove his car into a crowd of students, got out and began slashing people with a blade before a campus police officer killed him. 

Officials said 11 people received treatment at local hospitals. None of their injuries were life-threatening. 

Ohio State University was under lockdown for nearly two hours on Monday before shocked students and staff began streaming out of buildings. The university cancelled classes for the rest of the day. (AFP)

Columbus, Ohio is home to 40,000 Somalis, most of whom came seeking asylum in the 1990s when famine and war forced millions to flee the East African nation.

Even before Monday’s attack, Muslims at Ohio State have felt threatened by a heightened atmosphere of verbal intimidation, where Trump’s win and anti-immigrant rhetoric stokes the anger and suspicion of their peers on campus. 

A profile that the Ohio State student newspaper, The Lantern, published about Artan published in August helped to justify the fears some already had of Muslims.

Artan’s statements appeared to undermine Muslims’ attempts to draw a distinction between members of their faith and the often violent portrayal of them in movies, television and news. 

In the interview, Artan said that he had transferred from a community college — Columbus State University, where many Somalis attend. He described feeling disoriented without knowing whether prayer rooms were available at his new, much bigger university. 

“I wanted to pray in the open, but I was scared with everything going on in the media. I’m a Muslim, it’s not what the media portrays me to be. If people look at me, a Muslim praying, I don’t know what they’re going to think, what’s going to happen,” he told the paper. 

“But, I don’t blame them. It’s the media that put that picture in their heads," Artan said. "It’s going to make them feel uncomfortable. I was kind of scared right now. But I just did it. I relied on God. I went over to the corner and just prayed.”

In the hours after the attack, Twitter accounts used the quote and the photo accompanying the student profile to drive home the point that even when Muslims say they are non-violent, they still don’t deserve trust. 

Muslims at Ohio State said, “Make America Great Hats” are becoming a more frequent sight across campus. Harassment against women wearing hijab have also increased and the women try not to walk alone. 

“They’re getting spit on and being told to go back to their countries,” said Abederrahmane Amor, 21, chair of the Muslims Students Association at Ohio State, who spoke for himself and not on behalf of the group. 

He had a message for his fellow students to embrace positivity at a time of crisis. 

“Trump’s agenda is one of xenophobia and division, convincing a majority-white supporter base that the Other is truly the enemy, while statistically and factually it is incorrect,” he told TRT World.

“Be strong. As a minority in this country, you have the ability to shape people's understanding of your religion. Be that positive light at a time when negativity and darkness define the times. Smile when others don't. Embody humility when others don't."

Although Trump and his followers fear an invasion of Muslim refugees, the religion is still a tiny minority in a majority Christian country — about five million adherents in a country of 320 million. There are about the same number of Jews in the United States, and they have also suffered a marked increase in harassment that civil rights advocacy groups blame on Trump's white nationalist rhetoric and stunning election win. 

Nicole Holliday, 29, an Ohio State graduate, said she hoped Columbus would overcome the impulse to react to the incident with fear instead of unity. 

“I was really hoping it wasn't a person of colour, and especially not a refugee. Because when white folks terrorise a campus, it's ‘an individual mental health issue’ but when it's someone from a marginalised group, the same act becomes ‘terrorism,’” she wrote on Facebook. 

“Columbus, you're better than hate; don't use this incident to shut yourselves down and cower in fear. Embrace your community and everyone in it with peace and love."

Wilson Dizard