To the editor:
(re: “Collegian confronts congressman over Israel, Ilhan Omar,” April 25)
Thank you to The Riverdale Press and reporter Heather J. Smith for the front-page story about what happened at U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel’s visit to Manhattan College. I’m grateful to Manhattan College junior Rabea Ali for the thoughtfulness, dignity, persistence and courage described in the story.
U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel visited Manhattan College in mid-April to give a talk about his visit to the U.S.-Mexico border and detained refugees’ living conditions. Ms. Ali asked him about refugees in other parts of the world, and the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories; about his attacks on U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, which she described as Islamophobic; and she questioned whether his vocal support for Israeli policy toward Palestinians is consistent with his humane approach toward refugees at the U.S.-Mexico border.
A little background about Ms. Ali. On Nov. 10, she publicly posted the following to her Facebook page: “Words cannot explain how honored I am to have spoken at this year’s Kristallnacht lecture especially during a time where solidarity amongst faiths and minorities is so pivotal. Thank you, Dr. Afridi for this opportunity and trusting me.”
The post is accompanied by a photo of Ms. Ali speaking at a lectern, wearing a hijab. Dr. Mehnaz Afridi, as many Riverdale residents know, is a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, and director of its Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center.
Apparently, Ms. Ali’s questions irritated this veteran politician. Mr. Engel said to her, “You know, you ought to be nicer. Put a smile on your face. It wouldn’t hurt.”
This story quoted CUNY professor of critical psychology and women’s studies Michelle Fine: “A man telling a woman to smile … is an expectation that a woman should behave in a way he feels is best. Research has generally concluded that smile requests are an expectation that women should be caring and welcoming verbally and non-verbally at all times. High-power people tend to feel entitled to tell low-power people to act. Men never tell other men to smile.”
Many women’s lived experience bears out the research Professor Fine cites.
There are moments in the political life of elected officials when their temperament is revealed in a single encounter. Mr. Engel’s poor treatment of this Muslim student, however, is part of a clear pattern of bullying. It is clear in his reflexive, bombastic support of Israel, even when it conducts genocidal policies in the occupied territories and discriminates against Palestinians and other Arabs within its borders.
It is clear in his bullying of his colleague, Rep. Omar, when she has had the courage and wisdom to question U.S. support for Israeli policy despite a national atmosphere of dangerous Islamophobia.
It is clear in his sexist mockery of Rabea Ali as she sought to engage with him on important policy matters at a public forum at her school. Not surprisingly, Mr. Engel’s office refused to comment for Ms. Smith’s story. Nor has the congressman, as of this writing, apologized to Ms. Ali.