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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Wanted: Courses on Arab and Muslim Americans

Aref Assaf, PhD

July 5, 2011
See published version in the Bergen Record

See article on the initiative on Al-Arabiya

A few exceptions, notwithstanding, American higher education institutions do not offer general or specialized studies of Arab and Muslim Americans. This is a shocking reality considering that this community has produced intellectual giants, inventors, celebrities, and public figures. In addition, this community has been the subject of relentless public scrutiny. It has been the subject of congressional hearings to “determine the exact radicalization” of its members; the object of many stereotyped Hollywood movies; of endless FBI’s ‘voluntary interviews’; the intended target of restrictive laws and regulations; and the victim of relentless right wing and fanatical ‘religious’ pundits. One would think, hence, American colleges would provide the proper academic setting to critically examine and understand this community.

While the study of Arabic, Islam, and Muslims has substantially increased since 9/11, interest in Arab and Muslim Americans has been lacking if not nonexistent. No rigorous focus exists to study the lives of almost 10 million American citizens who have been part of our republic since before its founding. Even in Passaic and Bergen counties, where a thriving Arab and Muslim community live, the situation is just as bleak.

New Jersey has over 850,000 Americans who are either Arab or Muslim. They are an integral component of our State’s cultural tapestry. They are shopkeepers, doctors, professors, lawyers, poets, nurses, police officers, mayors, judges, inventors, military leaders, and activists. However, their cultural heritage, their faiths and their collective American stories remains outside the mainstream popular culture. No one has convincingly answered the question as to why the community has thus far eluded the radar screen of academics.


An initial online search of courses offered by NJ colleges portends a complete absence of such courses. Professor Peter Golden, Director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Rutgers University, could only recall one course to have been offered once. Professor Amaney Jamal of Princeton University and Professor Mazooz Sehwail of Montclair State University affirmed, likewise, the same conclusion.


Islamophobia and Arab phobia cannot be the simple explanation for the issue here. It would unreasonable to lay blame on the hundreds of Arab and Muslim college professors who ought to be teaching such courses. Funding concerns should not be a major excuse, as the relevant courses can be incorporated into several existing interdisciplinary studies. And we cannot find fault in the timeliness (national security concerns) of the topics nor the lack of possible textbooks or literature. What I am left with, therefore, is a suspicion that what is lacking is an awareness to justify the need for specific courses as part of a regular course curriculum, rather than as occasional and student–driven special-topics courses.


University of Michigan-Dearborn is a prime example of an emerging template of a rigorous academic focus on the topic. A New Jersey specific course could have the title of Arab Americans and the Making of Paterson as the Silk Capital of the World. Arab silk traders, tailors, and designer made New Jersey the US Silk Capital in 1800sand early 1900s. Another course could explore the Arab American ethnic media and its impact on shaping the political and social attitudes of the community. Yet another course could explore the various immigration waves of Arab Americans into the area and examine their drive to settle in the US and how their Middle Eastern languages and cultures merged, contrasted, or otherwise hindered their ability to become fully American while maintaining their distinct cultural stamp.


Because American Muslims comprise multiple ethnicities with different narratives of migration and cultures, they appropriately deserve separate courses that examine their historical and contemporary issues. Muslims did not show up on American shores on 9/11. They have made America their home since the time of Columbus. A course is needed to focus on the dynamics of “American Islam” and its adherents. A course could also examine the half a million strong NJ Muslim community by highlighting their social, political, and economic complexities and the role of the mosque on their temporal as well as spiritual imperatives.


Ignoring ten million Americans in the classroom has in a massive way sustained their alienation and ‘otherness’. America is not helped by such a stance. This ambivalence has planted the seeds of xenophobic tendencies that foster racial discrimination against fellow students and ultimately fellow citizens.

American colleges have a responsibility to provide an academic setting for a careful, critical and unhindered examination of our relationship with Arab and Muslim Americans. While college courses alone cannot ‘compel civility’ and tolerance, they can surely illuminate their noble qualities. The time is now to unlock the vault of this part of America.


Dr. Aref Assaf is president of American Arab Forum, a think-tank specializing in Arab and Muslim American affairs. www.aafusa.org

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