Abandoning almost all pretenses of scholarly inquiry and academic rigor, Arizona State University opened a new center this fall semester dedicated to telling the story of Muslims in America. Called the Center of Muslim Experience in the US (CME-US), it marks a major departure from the traditional kind of "center" or "initiative" spun off from the academic field known as Middle East studies.
According to the Arizona State Press, the center claims that its mission is "to transform the image of Muslims and of Islam in the United States." The operative word "transform" suggests that image is a negative one. Any realistic attempt to transform this image from negative to positive will have to address the effect that Muslim terrorists killing in the name of Islam while spouting verses from the Quran have had on that image of Muslims in the United States. A politicized ideological analysis, all too common in academia, would ignore these realities and instead blame the U.S. and Americans for jumping to conclusions and for "Islamophobia." Which kind of center will the CME-US be?
Islamic Horizons magazine explains that the new center is "a pioneering endeavor to advance research and deepen public knowledge on the understudied history of Muslims in the United States and their many contributions to American society and culture." But determining which Muslims will be studied and what experiences will be showcased is fraught with subjectivity. I reached out to the center and its founders in search of how these decisions would be made, but no one responded to my repeated inquiries.
Commenting on the new center, Arizona State's dean of humanities, Jeffrey Cohen, said: "ASU has a population of over 8,000 Muslim faculty, staff and students. They deserve to have their stories, histories and rich cultures valued and shared."
Telling the stories of the 8,000 Muslims at Arizona State University seems less like rigorous academic work and more like "show and tell" for college students, and the entire enterprise seems more like advocacy than scholarship, which, to be honest, is what many Middle East centers have become anyway.
Perhaps aware of this fact on some level, the founders have taken pains to define their new "pedagogies of difference," a grandiose phrase they vaguely define as "alternative methodologies that draw from diverse religious traditions to communicate and help student learning of cultural differences and real-world problems."
Equally nebulous is their assertion that "[t]he center will form an ASU faculty cohort to regularly meet and research the foundational ideas of the methods of pedagogies of difference and translate those ideas into teaching techniques and scholarship." That's academic-speak for "we'll figure this out and get back to you."
Some of the jargon stems from the leaders of this new center who are "peace studies" professors: Yasmin Saikia is the Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies, and Chad Haines is associate professor of religious studies. According to the CME-US website, "[t]ogether, they have co-edited three volumes in Peace Studies: 'Women and Peace in the Islamic World,' 'People's Peace,' and 'On Othering: Processes and Politics of Unpeace.'" (General advice: Take cum grano salis advice from anyone who uses "other" as a verb.)
The problem with peace studies is that it is dominated by people who believe that the process of talking peace will lead to peace. History proves that there can be no peace between warring parties until one side is victorious over another.
Perhaps the CME-US will just be a feel-good center where Islamic and Muslim achievements are exaggerated. Cohen says that "Muslim contribution to world history and culture would be difficult to overstate — and the Muslim experience in the United States has helped to shape the nation." Actually, the Muslim contribution to the world (and the U.S.) is frequently overstated. Apologists such as Craig Considine have made careers out of exaggerating the importance of Islam in the United States. This summer, I wrote about a professor from Britain who absurdly said that "without Islam there would be no Shakespeare."
Maybe I'm being too hard on the new center.
Maybe it will add a new and corrective dimension to the hysteria about Islamophobia spread by other academic centers.
Maybe it will depict the positive side of life in the U.S. for Muslims and deepen public knowledge about how they live freer lives and enjoy more political autonomy in the U.S. than Muslims anywhere in the Middle East.
Maybe it will give the 8,000 Muslims at the university a chance to share with the world the lifestyle they live that draws millions of others here, both legally and illegally.
For the CME-US to transform the image of Muslims in the U.S., it must address the truth that Americans' introduction to Muslims came largely from Ruhollah Khomeini, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas, Boko Haram, and al-Shabab. Such a center could educate millions about the difference between moderate and militant Islam — between Islam and Islamism. It could use its authentic Muslim identity to expose the ideas and ideologues responsible for giving Muslims and Islam a negative image in the United States.
Of course, I'm not expecting any of this to happen. I suspect the CME-US will be another grievance narrative–peddling cog in the Middle East studies academic complex, biased against Israel and working hand in glove with the other elements of the Islamophobia industry.
If the center wants to prove me wrong, its very first speaker should be Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, the most famous American Muslim from Arizona.
A.J. Caschetta is a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, where he is also a Ginsburg-Milstein fellow.