[lg policy] Letter to the Editor, Chronicle of Higher Ed: Ethnic Studies Should Include Arab-Americans, Muslim Americans

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jun 14 20:49:40 UTC 2011

Ethnic Studies Should Include Arab-Americans, Muslim Americans

To the Editor:

Akbar Ahmed and Lawrence Rosen outline several ways that university
campuses might combat anti-Muslim sentiment ("Academe's Obligation to
Counter Anti-Muslim Sentiment," The Chronicle, April 3). Within the
past decade many of their recommendations have been implemented by
two-year and four-year academic institutions.

As far back as 2003, one of my doctoral courses required that I
interview Muslim Americans and Arab-Americans in the local community.
In fall 2006, when I was conducting my dissertation research on
Arab-American and Muslim American students, a few of the 21 community
colleges surveyed in California and Michigan held lecture series on
Islam, and several Muslims-student associations invited non-Muslims to
attend Ramadan al fitr dinners on campus. Most notably, the Levantine
Culture Center, in West Los Angeles, partners with public and private
universities to produce literary and comedic performances that
challenge gender and religious stereotypes about Muslim Americans.
These educational interventions have shown salutary effects when,
after participation, students have been surveyed or interviewed.

Mandatory diversity courses, however, are the most effective platform
to break down the walls of ignorance.

Many universities and colleges have instituted undergraduate
diversity-course requirements. The problem lies in that readings on
Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans are not consistently assigned in
the course syllabi. Last fall I taught a required diversity course at
a major research university, and it was the first time in the history
of the course that readings were assigned on Arab-Americans and Muslim

The time is long overdue for American ethnic-studies departments to
offer courses on Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans as part of their
regular course curriculum, rather than as special-topics courses. At
present only a handful of universities offer courses and/or a major in
Arab-American studies. Because Muslim Americans comprise a wide range
of ethnicities with different histories of migration, they merit a
separate course that examines historical and contemporary issues
facing individual Muslim-diaspora communities. Islamic studies'
courses do not fit the bill, because they traditionally focus more on
Muslim culture and society at the macro level.

Over the years, I have heard a litany of excuses for not offering
these courses: Some say that it's hard to find the necessary funds,
others that it's difficult to locate faculty members with expertise,
or even that Arab-Americans historically do not constitute an ethnic
minority. Budget and faculty constraints are understandable, but to
ignore or not realize that anti-Arab racism predated 9/11 by well over
a century—starting with the denial of U.S. citizenship to
Syrian-Lebanese based on nativist arguments that they were Asian
rather than white—is inexcusable and, lamentably, institutionally
racist. For close to a century the vilification of Arabs and Muslims
has dominated our media landscape—in silent films and talkies, in TV
news, in prime-time series, on the radio, in print, and on the
Internet. Is it not only fair that they occupy a space in the American
ethnic-studies pie?

Diane Shammas
Laguna Beach, Calif.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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