Statement on the Acts of Vandalism on the Quran in Evanston

MENA Director Brian Edwards at the Evanston Public Library

"On behalf of the MENA program, I denounce these acts of hatred by an anonymous perpetrator. They are hurtful to all members of our community, whatever their religion. The use of the swastika recalls the extermination of six million Jews during the Holocaust, the persecution of homosexuals by the Nazis, and the racial violence against African Americans under the name of White Nationalism, which has adopted the iconography of the Nazis."

Brian T. Edwards, MENA Program Director

November 24, 2016

On November 21, 2016, the MENA Program hosted a program at the Evanston Public Library (EPL) — the sixteenth such program we have hosted in collaboration with the library since January 2015.

The series features leading scholars and experts, including Northwestern faculty, and is designed to help improve public understanding of the Middle East. It is a popular and well-attended series, free and open to the public. We regularly host 75-100 people in our audience. You can see a list of previous speakers and their topics here.

The lecture this past Monday evening was “Is the Quran a ‘good book’?” by Yale professor Zareena Grewal, an expert on Islam in America. In preparation for the event, EPL staff brought down books from their collection available for circulation. This is common practice at all of our lectures. We believe in books; we believe in education.

Grewal’s lecture was on the Quran as an “iconic object in American debates about racial and religious tolerance.” Indeed, Grewal’s new research, which she presented earlier in the day on the Northwestern campus at a “MENA Monday” event, addresses acts of violence done in the U.S. on copies of the Quran, from filmed shootings to public burnings of the holy book.

When EPL staff pulled copies of the Quran and studies of its meaning from their shelves to display, they found that several had been defaced with racist language and iconography. Swastikas, the “n” word, and homophobic slurs against the Muslim Prophet were written on the books. The timing of the vandalism is under investigation. There was some evidence from librarians that the books were defaced in the past week, but this is not yet verified. It is unclear whether the vandalism was directed at or provoked by our program.

Library staff alerted police, who were visible at the start of our event. EPL adult services librarian Lorena Neal announced the acts of vandalism to the audience. I made a statement to the audience deploring the act, as well as other recent acts of hate speech and intimidation. And then Professor Grewal gave her previously prepared presentation without incident. As always, there was a rich question and answer period after the lecture. There were no disruptions at the event.

In the past two days, the story about the vandalism has become a major news story, both on social media and in Chicago and national media (ABC7, Chicago Tribune, NPR, Washington Post, etc.) Part of what propelled the story, undoubtedly, is that it took place in the context of a spate of racially inflected violence and intimidation against Muslims and other ethnic, racial, and religious minorities in the wake of the presidential election two weeks ago.

Also, Lorena Neal published a photograph of one of the vandalized books on her Facebook account Tuesday morning with some comments about what had happened. As of this writing, the photo has been shared more than 2,800 times, with thousands of responses. On Monday night, from the library, I announced on Twitter what had happened, though I opted not to include any photos. While my Tweet and Facebook post were shared widely, it was nothing like Neal’s photo, which truly went viral. People were clearly moved by seeing the vandalized book itself. 

On behalf of the MENA program, I denounce these acts of hatred by an anonymous perpetrator. They are hurtful to all members of our community, whatever their religion. The use of the swastika recalls the extermination of six million Jews during the Holocaust, the persecution of homosexuals by the Nazis, and the racial violence against African Americans under the name of White Nationalism, which has adopted the iconography of the Nazis.

The multiple groups invoked by this vandal — Muslims, Jews, gays, and African Americans — are all groups who know the terror of violence. That groups who have often been placed in opposition to one another are lumped together by this vandal is part of the reason that the crime has affected us all. Violence against any of us is violence against all of us. 

Members of our community have expressed a range of emotions from fear to sadness in response to the exposure of these crimes. Many have expressed surprise that this happened in Evanston, which is associated with liberal tolerance; others have pointed to persistent racism in the area, whether the legacies of segregation or the continued acts of intolerance in our midst. Surely both aspects of the city are true.

Muslims have been targeted for decades in the United States (I have written a short account of this history here). In the last two weeks, hate speech and crimes have escalated dramatically, both locally and nationally. According to FBI statistics, and as reported widely, hate crimes against Muslims in America surged 67% during 2015. On the very day of our event, the Pew Research Center reported that anti-Muslim assaults had reached 9/11-era levels.

The MENA program reaches out to the Chicagoland communities to state our condemnation of the hateful vandalism of the books in the library. I would like to reinforce our commitment to continue to educate, to dialogue, to teach, to write, and to fight ignorance with light and hatred with love. As Northwestern faculty, we are committed to the protection of our Muslim students and colleagues. As residents of Evanston and Chicago we are committed to the safety and protection of our Muslim families, friends, and neighbors. The need for education and understanding in a time when much misinformation is rampant has never been greater.

Please join us at future MENA events at Evanston Public Library. They are free and open to the public, by design. The costs associated with the speakers are fully funded by Northwestern’s MENA program, sustained thus far by a seed grant from a private donor, and the events are staffed by both MENA and EPL. Lectures are always followed by vibrant Q&A sessions, and we have received excellent feedback for the series as a whole and individual events in particular.

At the heart of our collaboration is the belief that public education around a complex and frequently misunderstood region can help address misunderstanding. Books are central to that project — our speakers frequently discuss their own books or works in progress, we display books, and the MENA program donates books by our speakers to the library collection.

The expression of racial hatred and violence in books is thus doubly troubling to both MENA and EPL communities. But as the massive response of condemnation of these acts by a single individual demonstrates, this is a time when the much larger number of Americans stand together in their support of our Muslim friends, families, colleagues, neighbors, and fellow Americans. This act of hate by an unidentified individual is an opportunity for a multitude of people from diverse backgrounds to come together, stand up against fascism, hatred, and racial bigotry of all kinds.

Brian T. Edwards

Crown Professor in Middle East Studies

Director, MENA Program

Northwestern University