Challenging the Checkbox: Experiences of the Arab-American community on campus
At a small ceremony on Feb. 26, students from the Arab-American community on campus gathered to dedicated a new multicultural lounge on the third floor of North Quad. The gathering was small and quiet, with no more than two dozen students in attendance.
But for many, the lounge was a significant step in gaining recognition on campus. Recognition, it seems, is something these communities have been lacking.
In the years since 9/11, discrimination against Arab and Muslim Americans has become a common — yet often underreported — occurrence in the United States. In the wake of the attacks, Ann Arbor was no different, as instances of “venomous rhetoric” against The Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives and Muslim Students’ Association were documented in the weeks following the attack.
“Arab-Americans are facing a dual challenge as Americans they suffer from the same grief as their fellow citizens as persons of Arab and Muslim descent, they are under attacks arising from a presumption of guilt,” The Michigan Daily’s Editorial Board wrote on Sept. 16, 2001.
And these issues persist today.
In February, the murder of three Muslim students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill sparked a national conversation surrounding hate crimes against Muslims. And locally, an Arab-American Muslim man was assaulted in Dearborn at a Kroger in front of his family on Feb. 12.
In response to these events — and other recent anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hate crimes — the University’s Arab and Muslim American Studies Program hosted a closed town hall meeting for Middle Eastern, North African and Muslim students on Feb. 23. The event was created to honor the victims and to build a community on campus.
“The purpose of the town hall is two-fold,” the program wrote in the event description on Facebook, “To process and grieve for the victims of hate crimes, and to build allyship and solidarity across groups on campus that represent Muslim and/or Arab U of M community members.”
But finding support for a community that is not recognized in many official capacities can prove challenging.
“We’re the invisible category that’s on campus,” said LSA sophomore Mekarem Eljamal, spokesperson for the Students Allied for Freedom and Equality and executive board member of the Middle East and Arab Network.
It’s a common sentiment among Arab-American students.
The U.S. census and most government-produced documents — including those produced for admission to the University — do not include “Arab” in their demographics — though the federal government has announced plans to test a Middle Eastern and North African classification for the 2020 census. Currently, these groups are categorized as “White,” despite major discrepancies between white and non-white experiences, said Sally Howell, a assistant professor of Arab-American history and culture at the University's Dearborn campus.
“According to the U.S. census they’re white; but, according to our popular culture, they’re not white,” Howell said.
Evelyn Alsultany, an associate professor in American culture and coordinator of the University’s program in Arab and Muslim American studies, said the lack of identification often means that Arab Americans are left out of academic discussions of race and ethnicity in the U.S.
“I felt that, growing up, my experience was not one of whiteness or normative identity,” Alsultany said. “I’d watched a lot of subtle assumptions about my father — questions about terrorism, questions about where he’s from and how he makes his money, questions like that when I was very young.”
Alsultany is one of a limited number of Arab and Muslim American faculty members on campus. After attending the University as an undergrad, she went to graduate school at Stanford University with the desire to study Arab and Muslim American culture. At the time, she said she was discouraged from doing so by advisers and told to pursue a graduate degree in one of the established fields, such as Native American studies.
But after 9/11, everything changed. Alsultany, still in graduate school, said she saw the interest and inquiry into Arab-American communities increase dramatically.
“Things really changed in terms of larger public seeing very explicitly the racialization of Arab and Muslim Americans and there was more attention to Arab and Muslim Americans and jobs opened up in academia,” she said.
Since helping to establish the University’s program — one of only three in the country to focus on Arab-American identity — Alsultany said she sees herself as a resource for students in the community. The program is unique from other programs nationally in that it examines issues related specifically to the experiences of Arabs in the United States, such as the impact of government surveillance programs and media portrayals of the war on terror.
“We want to look at how culture and religion can become political or politicized and what the impact of that is on those communities,” Alsultany said.
While remaining hopeful for the future, she said it has been a slow process establishing the program at the University.
Tracking enrollment rates of Arab-American students at the University proves difficult even for experts in the community. Some point to this lack of data as indicative of the tendency for the community to be overlooked when it comes to diversity initiatives on campus.
In a recent survey conducted by The Michigan Daily of 443 randomly selected undergraduates, about 3 percent of respondents identified themselves as Arab. This is slightly higher than the statewide population of Arabs, which sits at about 2 percent according to estimates by the Arab American Institute.
And anecdotal evidence suggests that the community on campus has grown in recent years. Matthew Stiffler, a University lecturer in the Department of American Culture, who received a doctorate in Arab-American studies from the University in 2010, said he has observed a changing tide in the way Arab-American students — particularly those from Dearborn — view Ann Arbor.
In addition to his role at the University, Stiffler is also a researcher at the Arab American Museum in Dearborn, located about forty-five minutes east of Ann Arbor. Dearborn neighbors Detroit and developed under many of the same driving forces, namely the auto manufacturers and local commerce that grew to support blue-collar households. The city is currently home to one of the University’s two satellite campuses as well as the highest proportion of Arab Americans out of any city in the U.S. — over 40 percent.
At the Dearborn campus, Arab-American enrollment has been high ever since the 1970s and ‘80s, Stiffler said, following trends in Arab immigration to the city. The campus appealed to families who wanted to maintain close ties while their children were attending school. At present, it is estimated that the student body at the Dearborn campus is at least 25 percent of Arab descent, if not more.
“I think they see Dearborn as a good school that they’re proud to go to — proud to have in their community,” Stiffler said. “It is a much more diverse school than UM-Ann Arbor … It makes for a much more diverse learning environment.”
By contrast, Arab-American enrollment in Ann Arbor has only recently seen increases — again, evidenced anecdotally. Twenty years ago, a handful of students from Dearborn would enroll at the University’s Ann Arbor campus every year, Stiffler said. That number could be closer to 100 today, but even so a mix of cultural and political tensions could be dissuading some students from applying to or matriculating at the Ann Arbor campus.
Scholarships and outreach efforts have done their part in increasing the University’s appeal. One program in particular, The Brehm Scholars, is credited with a significant increase in Arab-American enrollment in Ann Arbor. This program offers full-ride, four-year scholarships to a select group of graduating students from Dearborn’s Fordson High School, where 95 percent of the student body are of Arab descent.
While the program only offers scholarships to about four students per year — a scholarship that can be extended to eight years if the students are accepted to the University’s medical school — the impact is much broader. Students in the program have become unofficial ambassadors for the University and the city of Ann Arbor. Keeping close ties with the community, they have played a significant role in shaping perceptions of the University in the Dearborn community.
In 2014, Fordson sent twenty-two students to the Ann Arbor campus, nearly as many as it sent to UM-Dearborn.
“That there are other students here now helps a lot — the fact that they’re not coming alone,” said Dorene Markel, director of the University’s Brehm Center.
Dearborn has historically provided Arab Americans a safe haven in a country that is less than understanding about their culture. While only an estimated 24 percent of Arab Americans are Muslim, the religion is often conflated with all members of the community. Especially in the United States, such cultural and religious misappropriations can lead to tension and, in certain cases, violence against individuals perceived as Arab.
Across the United States, hostility toward the Arab community has grown increasingly worse since 9/11, said Howell, an assistant professor at UM-Dearborn. For Arab-American students just trying to get a college degree, the discrimination is both tedious and exhausting.
“The hostility that you see in American culture towards Arabs and Muslims today is unprecedented and it’s worse than it was after 9/11 by far and people are aware of it and are cautious,” Howell said.
In all media, misconceptions of Arab culture and the religion of Islam have been widely perpetuated. Howell provided an example: a December 2011 episode of Fox’s animated comedy “The Simpsons,” where one of the characters claims that Michigan is under Sharia law — the legal system of Islamic religion. The animation also depicted a scene of UM-Dearborn’s campus.
But, in general, Howell said the Dearborn campus provides Arab-American students a certain level of comfort.
“It is a safe place — it’s not a perfect place — but it is a safe place to be an Arab-American student,” Howell said of the UM-Dearborn campus. “I think it would be a big deal on our campus if someone were explicitly racist toward an Arab.”
In Ann Arbor, discrimination against Arabs and Muslims is sometimes hard to define. Though official incidents of hate crimes on campus are rare — the University’s Division of Public Safety and Security reported one instance of religious-based bias crime in 2013 — cases of discrimination are widely discussed in the Arab and Muslim communities.
LSA senior Saher Rathur, president of Muslim Students’ Association, described various types of discrimination she and her friends have experienced on campus. These can include everything from dirty looks to biased speech to various forms of microaggression. In the Muslim community, she said those who wear the traditional Muslim headscarf — the hijab — often face the most serious backlash. She cited an incident on State Street, where a passenger in a passing car yelled “something really derogatory” at her friend who was wearing the hijab.
Cultural insensitivity can perpetuate the classroom as well. LSA senior Raya Saksouk, co-chair of the MEdAN, said that discrimination can often manifest as a feeling of alienation during discussions about certain academic topics. As an International Studies major, she said she has experienced this firsthand.
“People talk about the Middle East, but in very abstract political science type of ways,” Saksouk said. “Sometimes people would say things that are problematic — in the classroom or in student organizations — and those situations are hard to navigate.”
Andrew Shryock, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Anthropology, said it can be difficult for instructors and administrators — even those with good intentions — to know how to best support Arab and Muslim students.
“Very often people who support Arabs and Muslims on campus don’t actually support them in a way that’s meaningful for Arabs and Muslims. It’s a default ‘we hope you feel comfortable here’ kind of support,” Shryock said. “But it’s not necessarily based on any kind of intimate knowledge of their community or even affection for their causes or their traditions.”
Shryock said he takes efforts to avoid the group mentalities that often only serve to divide students and create environments that discourage real education. Such divisions can come into play during tense political discussions, such as those that occurred during the UM Divest campaign in the spring of 2014.
“That’s a mobilizing and fighting issue, people kind of team up to engage in that issue,” Shryock said. “I personally am not a teaming up kind of person. I like to, in my courses, create frameworks in which people can actually understand something about the Arab and Muslim world that’s not available to them in the United States.”
“It’s something where people have very strong feelings and feel they can’t trust the other side, and that always produces climate issues. It’s hard to work through that,” Shryock added in an e-mail to the Daily.
Portions of the community gathered last spring when the Students Allied for Freedom and Equality launched a weeklong sit-in following Central Student Government’s indefinite postponement of a vote on a proposed divestment resolution, which called for the University to look into its investments in corporations that hold military contracts with the Israeli military and therefore support human rights violations against Palestinians. As the movement gained attention across campus, many students interviewed — reflecting back on the campaign — said it served as a watershed moment for the Arab American and Muslim communities as a whole.
During the UM Divest campaign, students in support of divestment gathered in the CSG chambers every day after class for the week leading up to the CSG meeting where the resolution would be voted on. Mekarem Eljamal said the gatherings drew many Arab and Muslim students out of the woodwork who had not previously been involved in such organizations. She said the protest lead to a shift in how Arab-American students interacted with each other.
“Divest rallied so many people together,” Eljamal said. “People saw faces that they hadn’t seen … I felt like there was a bit more cohesiveness and more of a collective.”
This new sense of community contributed to the creation of the the Middle East and Arab Network, a new student organization founded in the beginning of Fall 2014. Eljamal, who is one of seven executive board members, sees the organization as a continuation of conversations about the Arab-American community that occurred during the UM Divest movement.
Saksouk describes the organization as having a two-prong approach: creating spaces for Arab and Middle Eastern identified students to talk about issues within and outside of their communities as well as creating campus-wide events to engage with the greater student body.
The organization has become increasingly active on campus and has scheduled several community workshops and dinners in honor of Arab Heritage Month. This is the second year that Arab Heritage Month has been celebrated on campus and is set to occur from March 16 to April 10.
Like the establishment of a new multicultural lounge and establishment of the Arab and Muslim Studies Program, Alsultany, coordinator of the University's Arab and Muslim American Studies Program, said the heritage month was another positive recognition of the community on campus.
“These are new moments and they are significant and show that spaces are being created, slower, but spaces are being created to respond to the needs of Arab and Muslim students on campus,” she said.
Correction appended: A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Alsultany in a reference to “…the radicalization of Arab and Muslim Americans.” The quote now references “…the racialization of Arab and Muslim Americans.”