Letters to the Editor

Ethnic Studies Should Include Arab-Americans, Muslim Americans

June 13, 2011

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 Americans.

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.