Studying the Liberal Arts while Muslim

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

ScreenHunter_2487 Jan. 02 11.42As the election season seemed more and more like being trapped in a carnival where the uncanny is orchestrated to play up primal fears, we witnessed language itself veering off into the realm of the irrational— not only because statements did not reflect facts or reflected only partial facts, or arguments lacked consistency, but because none of this mattered anymore: a sense of panic killed the need to seek the truth. The election machinery, with the media as its engine, successfully exploited anxiety to mute even the most basic assessment of language for truth-telling. If it were not for the few Human Rights groups circulating infographics (that bypass conventional language by presenting facts numerically) on social media, or sharing cell phone videos, or simply asking questions to expose the propaganda, all the cogs involved in manufacturing the “post-truth” age would have been even more opaque. Falling prey to fear-based propaganda isn’t uncommon in history, but when it happens to the populace of a leading superpower that prides itself in being a free-thinking democracy, one needs to ask how the populace has found itself primed for phobia. One of the many places to find the answer is academia, and my personal frame of reference is my alma mater Reed College, which itself happens to be in the throes of political agitation (not unlike many other campuses across the country), and is doubly significant to me because my son is a current student there. How does Reed prepare students to make sense of the world in the post-truth age? How did I fare as a female Muslim international student?

The day I graduated from Reed, I learned of a “time capsule” for my class (’95), to be opened by us in ten years— I forget what item I left in it but I remember not caring very much. Reed college, the genuine excitement for learning that it had generated, was already part of my limbic system; I would spend that first decade and the following decade building on my academic experience as I continued to read, write, publish, and attend grad school. I raised my children as if I were their HUM 110 conference leader— to maintain my own intellectual health as well as theirs, sometimes to the effect of annoyance, sometimes joy. HUM 110, Reed’s defining liberal arts course which is mandatory for all students and is described as a course that “introduces students to humanistic inquiry by considering a range of artistic, intellectual, political, and religious strategies that emerged in ancient Greece and in the larger Mediterranean world of which it was a part” had such a lasting impact on me that I carried my syllabus copy of Sappho to Delphi years later and felt at home in the Agora in Athens as if I’d already spent a lifetime there; I believe now that there is more to this attachment than the course itself. HUM 110 recalled and reaffirmed a method of learning that I grew up with in Peshawar, Pakistan, though I did not realize it then. Through my grandmothers, parents and their milieu of writers and artists, as well as my regular visits to the library and Museums, I had access to diverse works from both the East and the West— passed on as stories, poems and discussions that have stayed with me since. Peshawar, dubbed “spy city” during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, has been, through various phases in antiquity, an important center of the Zoroastrian and Greco-Buddhist civilizations. To know Greek works via Urdu, to know classical Urdu poets and the Persian mystics, to be familiar with Arabic and the Judeo-Christian tradition as well as Shakespeare, Keats and Frost, and then to find seams to join as a student at Reed, was thrilling for me. As an international student, a Pakistani, Muslim woman, I soon found that despite the fact that my liberal arts education at Reed was enabling me to put together puzzles and to refine my understanding of civilization, I was too often in a position to explain where I came from and how my piece of geography, history, and especially religion, figured in the larger picture; where was the HUM 110 discussion on Gandhara sculpture that ties Hellenism with Buddhist spirituality, or the Greek influence on the works of Muslim scientists in the golden age of Baghdad, or the Arabic influence on classical Hebrew poetry in Spain of the middle-ages? It was at a concert at Reed (by the “Al Andlaus Ensemble”) that I was inspired to research the convivencia of Al Andalus (Muslim Spain) and write my book of poems Baker of Tarifa, but I later wondered why Thomas Aquinas was included (in HUM 110) from the same period but Ibn Sina, Moses Maimonides, Ibn Rushd— the Muslim and Jewish philosophers who influenced him— were excluded, why Greco-Roman texts were deemed “foundational” but Arabic, the language that acted as the bridge between Greek and Latin, translating, transferring and building on Hellenistic civilization, used as the lingua franca by intellectuals in Europe for a good part of the middle ages, was considered unnecessary.

While the curriculum, the course offerings (and even the language houses) left much to be desired, I was never disappointed by the response from my professors; I found myself speaking freely about my concerns, getting guidance and support of all kinds. It made all the difference that my professors took the time to fully understand the context of my approach to academic goals as well as my response to the culture as a foreign student. I wrote for the college paper, was elected to serve on student senate, became a founding member of the Multicultural Resource Center, brought a scholar to campus to speak on Islam and Women— a topic that elicited an invigorating discussion and a great turnout. As a member of SCAPP (Student Committee on Academic Policy and Planning), I remember discussing HUM 110 and how it may be modified to include the works that were conspicuous by their absence, a discussion that continues to this day, in a very different tone— on the issue of HUM 110, Reedies Against Racism demand that:

“The required freshman course should be reformed to represent the voices of people of color. Lecturers should structure delivery and analysis of content that is sensitive to and proactive for inclusive practices. There should be an articulated understanding that “foundational texts” are subjective and that the importance of the course is to foster student’s abilities to read, write, and listen/respond. Before this is accomplished, Hum 110 should be conscious of the power it gives to already privileged ideas and welcome critique of that use of power. This could be done by 1) allowing alternative readings that critique texts on the current syllabus, 2) making Hum 110 non-mandatory until reform happens or 3) alternate options for Hum lecture.”

While I am painfully aware of the trauma that we, the people “of color” have gone through in recent years and continue to dread in the coming years, some of these demands and the strategy of extended “sit-ins” may not be effective in the long run. I support “reform” but the community, especially some of the faculty members who are devoted to the well-being of students, have felt undue stress. That said, HUM 110, (a version of which) was good enough for Alexander the Great and Churchill— is it good enough for those who do not inherit empire but rather identify with the colonized, the oppressed, or the rival “other” in a democracy— those whose intellectual contributions and influence have been willfully ignored or diminished? In an academic setting, do we see ourselves as a democracy or as a superpower?

In my student days, I remember discussing the inclusion of a language course in Arabic. I wonder if a generation of students familiar with Arabic would have felt empowered enough to help ease the phobia of a language whose speakers are routinely targeted simply because it is not a commonly understood language and has had negative associations since the crusades; people who have been known to confuse Math symbols with Arabic, or who freak out when they hear “inshallah”— could they have been primed for a level-headed response instead of irrational fears? In order to confront the post-truth age, we must first confront the ignorance that has made it possible.