In Administration & Faculty

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Shaista E. Khilji is a professor of human and organizational learning and international affairs.

Words matter. They allow us to communicate and talk to each other. They reveal our values and principles, who we are and what we stand for. Words make up and represent narratives. Good leaders articulate narratives that inspire people to come together as a community. They follow through with concrete actions to rally people around a shared purpose.

University President Ellen Granberg’s recent community messages and GW’s decision to suspend Students for Justice in Palestine at GW for three months tell the sad story of how words without supporting actions ring hollow and how words can hurt rather than heal and divide rather than bring together a community.

In her Oct. 9 message, Granberg said she acknowledged GW “thrives because of a rich diversity of identities, experiences and opinions.” She added, “Absolutely everyone deserves to feel welcome and safe on our campuses,” and GW will not tolerate “violence, discrimination or harassment against any member of the Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian, Arab or Muslim communities.”

On Oct. 11, after a vigil held by pro-Palestinian students, Granberg said that “Compassion and understanding remain the foremost priority for this university,” adding she condemns and abhors “the celebration of terrorism and attempts to perpetuate rhetoric or imagery that glorifies acts of violence.” And on Oct. 31, Granberg wrote, “protecting and preserving our shared community, however, must go beyond making statements” and that she wants to “enhance the ability of our community to constructively engage across what are difficult and complex issues.”

GW’s recent decision to suspend SJP for three months after an anti-Israel demonstration that officials said violated University policies directly contradicted Granberg’s verbal commitment not to tolerate discrimination and to constructively engage about these issues.

As a faculty member who has served GW for 18 years, I have read Granberg’s statements and those of other campus leaders with disappointment. As a proud member of the GW community, I have silently watched these events unfold with regret, shame and dismay.

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote that this war is a “knotty test of our humanity.” As Israel resumed its attacks on the Gaza Strip after a temporary truce, more than 15,000 Palestinians have lost their lives — a figure that represents nearly one out of every 200 Palestinians, according to the Washington Post. Save the Children estimates that one Palestinian child in Gaza is being killed every 10 minutes.

Amid this heartbreaking tragedy and in rereading Granberg’s Oct. 11 message, I wonder if she was inclusive of Muslim and Arab faculty, staff, students and other pro-Palestinian voices in speaking of leading with compassion and understanding. I also wonder: How do we prove our worthiness of empathy to those who don’t consider us equal humans?

Muslim students have reported several instances of Islamophobia on campus and called on the University to provide them with protection and support. They spoke of the impact of imbalanced words in perpetuating animosity toward them. And for many Muslim and Arab faculty members on this campus, who are already anguished by the genocide in Gaza, the community messages have triggered the struggle for our humanity in familiar places where we have spent decades teaching, researching and building a stronger GW community.

Dr. Amr Madkour and I are not alone in decrying the blatant dehumanization of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims. Sadly, we are all too familiar with the casual demonization of Muslims and the frequent use of narratives to misrepresent our beliefs and “otherize” us in mainstream media and politics. It pains me to see universities, supposed bastions of democracy and free speech, treading the same path of intolerance.

I want to tell Granberg and other GW leaders that the University has let us down. Hence, when I read that the theme for GW’s Ninth Annual Diversity Summit was “A Call for Justice, Liberation & Empathy,” it felt like empty words. An email about the summit referred to seeking “the humanity in other people,” challenging “ourselves to understand another point of view,” and empowering “each other to disrupt and push against all forms of oppression.”

I wondered what these words meant to Palestinian students given GW’s poor track record with them. With these lofty claims, what is the justification for actively silencing Muslim, Arab and pro-Palestinian voices because they seek justice? What can undo the harm we have experienced?

I am not writing to evoke sympathy from GW leaders. I write to fulfill my sense of responsibility toward all students who feel silenced and isolated for highlighting the plight of Palestinians. I write on behalf of faculty and staff who are afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation and despite trepidations for my own safety.

I write because I am inspired by Nelson Mandela’s words: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.”

I speak as a Revolutionary, whom GW describes as “not afraid to break boundaries” and willing to “go beyond what’s conventional or expected to focus on shifting mindsets.” Since our leaders don’t, I feel obligated to humanize Palestinians, whom some on our country’s campuses have called “blood thirsty morally depraved animals.” Palestinians are humans with dignity and have the right to freedom everyone deserves. Indeed, omitting Palestinians from institutional announcements doesn’t change United Nations officials’ pronouncements of an ongoing genocide. But, unfortunately, such announcements have added to the pain many American Muslims and Arabs experience.

As humans, we all make mistakes. Our words may not always be perfect. Hence, with each imperfect word, good leaders can find an opportunity to reflect, reach out and learn. I hope for it to happen at GW.

I also hope my imperfect words communicate my pride in GW and depict the tormented souls many of us live with. Lest my imperfect words are twisted and misrepresented, I clarify that I wish no one any harm or hurt.

Although saddened, I find the courage in me to remain optimistic for a just world where our political and institutional leaders are not beholden to their donors and board members. They are encouraged — not prevented — to lead with moral clarity. I dare to dream!

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