With many University students’ first introductions to the Middle East tinted by violence — the 1991 Gulf War, the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks and the on-going conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Israel/Palestine — the University’s decision to select the theme Cultural Treasures of the Middle East for the 2005 winter term should serve as an instrumental educational experience, redefining what may be currently misguided and dangerous student beliefs of Middle Eastern cultures. Students should take advantage of the opportunity to hear lectures, see films or visit exhibits showcasing the diverse array of Middle Eastern cultures. In an increasingly interconnected global society, it is important for students to learn more about the people inhabiting the world with them — with education, understanding should eventually precede conflict.
In recent years, the Middle East and its people have been portrayed negatively in the media. As the war on terrorism continues, it has become commonplace to associate terrorism with Middle Eastern cultures. Not only is this correlation false, it is detrimental to the educational enrichment of University students and the prospects of peace in the world. Furthermore, a recent study performed at Cornell University revealed that almost half of those surveyed supported some restrictions on the civil liberties of Muslim Americans simply because they are Muslim Americans. This study indicates some of the ignorance and fear that pervades Americans’ perceptions of the Middle East. Educational programs like the University’s can help deconstruct dangerously false stereotypes of Middle Eastern cultures and aid in formulating more truthful perspectives.
The University’s decision to portray Middle Eastern culture is also a positive step away from the Eurocentric focus that often dominates the discussion of culture. Cultural Treasures of the Middle East marks the first term with a non-Western focus in the University’s 25-year history of theme semesters. Theme semesters first started in 1980, but have not made regular appearances until 1992. Themes have commemorated the founding of Detroit and St. Petersburg and have also reflected on the historical and future significance of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Expanding the scope of the theme semesters beyond the West is important because when students learn in isolation from other cultures — false and dangerous stereotypes are created and persist.
Once again the University has taken an important leadership role with its theme semester selection. It is not too late for students to try out one of the 44 classes offered for the theme this semester, like Arab Feminisms: Homelands and Diasporas or the mini-course History of Egyptian Cinema. In order to have a world where students living in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles do not believe that people from the Middle East are terrorists and for children living in Damascus, Riyadh, and Tehran to not believe that Americans are godless infidels bent on imperial domination, educational programs promoting a fair and objective view of respective cultures are necessary.