Speaking to hundreds of members of the Cornell and Ithaca communities at a teach-in on Islam, the Middle East and the United States Feb. 17, history professor Eric Tagliacozzo said, “The present [executive immigration] ban could be just the tip of the spear of what is coming.”
The event served as an opportunity to teach and learn about Islam, and protest President Donald Trump’s executive order barring U.S. entry to nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries.
“This teach-in is one prong to our response, a public protest expressing our opposition to this ban,” said Deborah Starr, associate professor of Near Eastern studies in the College of Arts and Sciences and coordinator of the event held in the Groos Family Atrium at Klarman Hall.
Opening the event, Salah Hassan, professor of the history of art and of Africana studies, said “the dichotomy of good Muslim-bad Muslim invoked post 9/11 glosses over the diversity of views among Muslims, and also absolves the West from the responsibility of creating the so-called ‘Bad Muslim’ through intervention and wars of aggression in the region.”
Only 20 percent of the world’s Muslims live in the Middle East, Tagliacozzo said. The world’s largest Muslim-majority country is Indonesia, a democracy with open elections and a free press.
“Most Muslims want the same things as all other human beings. They want a better life, safety, health and happiness for themselves and their loved ones, and for their children to enjoy a better life than they did. This is a good message for the new government in Washington,” he said.
Discussing the diversity and history of Islam and its proliferation throughout Africa, Asia and the Western world, Hassan said “Islam has been transformed and recreated in the image of the people who adopt it. … There is no such thing as Islam, there are Islams … and all Muslims do not speak with one voice.”
Aziz Rana, professor of law, focused on the implications of anti-Muslim sentiment for national security and counterterrorism policy.
“The heart of Islamophobia is the idea that Muslim communities are predisposed to violence and are inherently dangerous,” he said. “This means that it is appropriate for security officials to implement policies that de-emphasize individualized threat assessments, which is the bedrock of our system of rule of law. Instead, officials tend to focus on mass surveillance and suspicion.”
Rana discussed how this resulted in religious devotion or political dissent being read as warning signs of radicalization, and even political advocacy being criminalized.
“One profound consequence is what activists and scholars see as a Muslim exception to the First Amendment,” he said. “Where dissenting is treated for most Americans as a positive sign of engaged citizenship, for many Muslims taking unpopular views or criticizing foreign policy can make you a suspect. All of this occurs despite the fact that as an objective matter the actual security threat posed by Muslims in America is strikingly limited.”
Several members of the Cornell community also spoke on topics ranging from America’s wars in the Middle East to Syrian refugees. Rebekah Maggor, assistant professor of performing and media arts, lectured on “Theater and Revolution: the View from Tahrir,” with a dramatic reading from the Egyptian play “Comedy of Sorrows” by Ibrahim El-Husseini.
“I wanted to talk about the way in which Arab drama has, for decades, portrayed the deleterious effects of plutocratic regimes on the lives of ordinary people,” Maggor said. “These plays can hold a critical mirror up to our own situation.”
Salma Shitia ’18 discussed the work of Cornell Welcomes Refugees, then screened a video about welcoming refugees, made by students. Near Eastern studies undergraduates, graduate students and faculty read poetry by writers from nations targeted by the ban, some in the original language as well as in translation.
The Department of Near Eastern Studies sponsored the teach-in, in partnership with the Jewish Studies Program, the Comparative Muslim Societies Program, the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative and the Law School’s Clarke Initiative for Law and Development in the Middle East and North Africa.
Justin Welfeld ’20 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.