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, a 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 studying Arabic, Islam, and Muslims has substantially increased since 9/11, interest in Arab and Muslim Americans has been lacking if nonexistent. No rigorous focus exists to study the lives of almost 10 million Arabs and Muslim who are also American citizens and who have been part of our republic since even before it was founded. 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 mosaic. 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, 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. What I am left with, therefore, is a suspicion that what is lacking is not a rich and varied material or the plethora of published textbooks or literature. What is needed, I believe, is an awareness to justify the need for specific courses as part of regular course curriculum, rather than as occasional and student--driven special-topics courses. Funding concerns should not be a major concern, as the relevant courses can be incorporated in several interdisciplinary studies.
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 1800'sand early 1900's. 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 a separate course that examines their
historical and contemporary issues facing individual Muslim communities. Courses
on general Islamic studies are needed but they remain incomplete unless accompanied
by courses focused on the dynamics of "American Islam" and its adherents. A
course could examine the half a million strong NJ Muslim community highlighting
their social, political, and economic variables and the role of the mosque on
their temporal as well as spiritual imperatives.
Ignoring ten million Americans from the classrooms has massively way sustained their alienation and "otherness'. America is not helped by such a stance. This ambivalence has planted the seeds for xenophobic tendencies fostering racial discrimination against fellow students and ultimately fellow citizens.
American colleges have a responsibility to provide academic settings for a careful and yes 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 and their unique cultural and human treasures.
Dr. Aref Assaf, president of American Arab Forum, a think-tank specializing in Arab and Muslim Americans affairs. www.aafusa.org