Peccadillo in Pocatello: Islamophobia Spreads at Idaho State

Photo of Idaho State University, Pocatello Campus, courtesy of The New York Times

At first glance, Pocatello, Idaho seems like an unlikely place to impact Middle East geopolitics. With a population of 54,000, Pocatello rarely gains attention for much beyond its mandatory smiling ordinance or a favorite son Dirk Koetter coaching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Therefore, it came as a surprise last month when international media outlets and high-flying Gulf diplomats placed a spotlight on the town. The drama began when Muslim students at Idaho State University reported incidents of harassment. The students – mainly hailing from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – complained about vandalism in  their apartments and anti-Muslim literature placed on their cars. Tensions have since cooled, and the Kuwaiti Education Minister has backed off of a threat to withdraw his nation’s students from the university. Explaining this  episode appears difficult. While ISU’s international contingent has many unique demographic attributes, these factors did not create the problem. Rather, disputes over apartment renting appear to have driven the affair, providing optimism that it represents nothing more than a fluke occurrence.

In many respects, Idaho State’s international student body stands as an outlier from other colleges. While it might seem logical to assume that these differences contributed to the Islamophobia outbreak, in actuality, they did not play much of a role. First of all, the proportion of ISU’s international students has risen dramatically. The number of foreign students at Idaho State has increased five-fold over the past decade, now comprising 12% of ISU’s student body. Other schools with comparably large international contingents (such as Georgetown and Rice) have grown much more gradually. Second, in addition to the sheer numbers, the nationalities of ISU’s international students also diverge from usual trends. Across U.S. universities (including Northwestern), China, India, and South Korea provide the most students. In contrast, Saudi Arabians and Kuwaitis make up 77% of ISU’s international contingent. For perspective, in 2011 Northwestern had just one Kuwaiti student. Third, academic interests also set Idaho State’s foreigners apart. NU internationals spread out across a wide array of majors, whereas a notable majority at Idaho State study Science/Engineering. In these respects, Idaho State’s foreign student population stands out from other schools.

However, such demographic distinctness likely did not contribute to the recent unrest. These differences all have reasonable explanations. In terms of the rapid growth, the school has taken staunch measures to help attract foreign students. In an interview with NUMER, university Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Terrell noted that the school does “not actively recruit international students.” However, Ms. Terrell did reveal that “ISU faculty and staff members have traveled to India, Oman, Taiwan, Greece, and Trinidad and Tobago to recruit students.” These travels have likely played a role in the spike in international enrollment. The preponderance of Science/Engineering majors also makes sense upon closer inspection. Ms. Terrell described how Idaho State “offer[s] some degrees, such as in Nuclear Engineering, not offered at other universities.” She pushed back against the notion that ISU’s international students are an outlier in this regard, observing that “Engineering programs have been in high demand with international students across the nation and ISU is no exception.” On the whole, the unique demographic factors of the school’s foreign contingent did not play a role in causing the turmoil.

Instead, the housing situation for international students appears to have led to  the recent events. According to Ms. Terrell, “The majority of international students live off campus.” Yet these off-campus residents have dealt with prior challenges. Landlords have faced accusations of unfairly raising  rent on Middle Eastern students. The landlords countered that hookah smoke damaged rugs and other aspects of the rented apartments. Meanwhile, some evidence suggests that the vandals received inside information from landlords, helping them to target Muslim apartments. Despite these conflicts, Ms. Terrell acknowledged that “the University has had very little contact specific to international students with landlords or apartment managers.” Perhaps enhanced communication between the ISU administration and apartment managers could help ease some of the tension over international renters.

It may seem easy to tie this episode into a broader narrative about rising discrimination and nativism on college campuses and across the country. Although the university’s culture did not contribute to the problem, the idea that the Pocatello landlords would overtly discriminate against Muslim renters remains disturbing and unacceptable.. Nevertheless, reasons for optimism exist. In many respects, Idaho State sounds like a diverse and welcoming place. The recent harassment did not get directed towards immigrants in general, as Ms. Terrell maintained that “our students from Nepal and China have not expressed any concerns about discrimination.” Likewise, Ms. Terrell also stated that ISU remains free from the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement that has targeted Israel at other schools. More symbolically, thousands of students attended a rally in April to stand with their Middle Eastern classmates. For these reasons, we can hope that the recent scandal represents simply a one-off occurrence rather than a harbinger of things to come.      

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