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Emory, Columbia University face federal anti-Muslim discrimination probes

Students at several universities have filed similar complaints that could lead to a series of investigations
Police officers detain a demonstrator during a protest at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, against the war in Gaza, on 25 April (Elijah Nouvelage/AFP)

Columbia University and Emory College will be the first universities to be federally investigated for anti-Muslim discrimination on campus.

The announcement came first for Emory when the Office of Civil Rights (ORC) at the US Department of Education on Tuesday notified the Council on American Islamic Relations - Georgia (Cair-GA) and Palestine Legal, pledging to investigate claims of anti-Muslim discrimination filed by students from Emory University under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Together with students from Emory University in Atlanta Georgia, Cair-GA and Palestine Legal compiled an 18-page document seen by Middle East Eye, filed on 5 April, which details on-campus harassment, acts of doxing and differential treatment faced by Muslim students and students supporting Palestine since October last year.

"The students filed 15 cases through the Emory University system but nothing was done to address their issues and fears. Some students were too afraid to leave their college dorms", executive director of Cair, Azka Mahmood, told Middle East Eye. 

On Thursday, the Department of Education announced that it would also be investigating Columbia University in New York City for anti-Palestinian racism after New York City Police Department officers in riot gear arrested hundreds of students protesting against the university's investments in companies linked to Israel's occupation of Palestine.

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“The law is clear: if universities do not cease their racist crackdowns against Palestinians and their supporters – they will be at risk of losing federal funding,” said Radhika Sainath, a senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal, which had filed a complaint to the federal agency. 

In January, several human rights associations, including Cair, wrote a letter to Emory, asking the university to address the students' concerns. 

'The law is clear: if universities do not cease their racist crackdowns against Palestinians and their supporters – they will be at risk of losing federal funding'

- Radhika Sainath, attorney

“Emory University rejected all complaints, brushed them aside, essentially saying ‘there is no problem here’,” Mahmood said.

On Tuesday, Cair-GA and Palestine Legal received confirmation from the ORC that the investigation had been opened. 

While investigations of such kind have been opened at schools in the US, Emory University is the first among higher education institutions, according to Mahmood. 

The investigation has been launched within a context of unprecedented student protests against Israel's ongoing war on Gaza across US campuses.

At least 90 Gaza solidarity encampments have been set up at US universities in recent weeks, with the Associated Press reporting on Thursday that 2,000 people have been arrested since mid-April across the US, when students at Columbia University in New York City began a Gaza solidarity encampment, sparking a wave of similar camps at schools across the US.

Protestors have been subject to harsh repression including police violence, arrests, suspensions, and permanent expulsion. Students at Emory University have reportedly been the first to face tear gas attacks by the police.

Columbia University has faced some of the most extreme measures with dramatic pictures broadcast over the past few weeks of law enforcement forcefully entering parts of the campus and tearing down encampments.

Investigation 'welcome'

The letter by the ORC, seen by Middle East Eye, specifies that it will investigate "whether the University responded to alleged harassment of students based on national origin (shared Palestinian, Muslim, and/or Arab ancestry) and/or race in a manner consistent with the requirements of Title VI".

It will also investigate whether the university "subjected students to different treatment based on national origin and/or race in violation of Title VI". 

She hopes this will compel Emory to take corrective measures, leading to a better environment for students. 

The document is reportedly one among at least six Title VI claims made in recent weeks regarding Islamophobic and anti-Muslim treatment on US campuses.

Others have been made by students from Rutgers, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Emory's case could have a domino effect and result in several investigations at other US campuses 

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