Dr. Ali Asani Discusses Stereotypes In American-Islamic Relations at ASM

Professor Ali Asani of Harvard University, a practicing Muslim, was having lunch with a student when he was confronted by the negative popular perception of his religion. The student asked Dr. Asani, “How can an intelligent, rational person like you, a professor at Harvard, believe and practice a religion like Islam that promotes violence and terrorism?” Dr. Asani said of the incident, “For a minute I was stunned. This was a student who was unable to reconcile the perception he had of Islam – a violent and barbaric religion – with the Harvard professor he knew.” At this Wednesday’s All-School Meeting Dr. Asani sought to educate the Andover community about similar cultural myths that cloud relations between America and the Middle East. The Young Arab Leaders at Andover (YALA) invited Dr. Asani to speak as part of Phillips Academy’s First Annual Arab Awareness Day. “We live in a time of conflict. Each conflict around the world is characterized by polarities: civilized vs. barbarians; good vs. evil; Jews and Christians vs. Muslims; the West vs. Muslim nations,” Dr. Asani told the audience. “But these generalizations are all inaccurate.” Dr. Asani stressed that just as all Western countries are not the same, neither are all Muslim countries. He pointed out that not all Arabs are Muslim, nor are all Muslims Arab. Only 20 percent of Muslims are Arab and 70 percent of Arab-Americans are Christian. “An entire people has been painted with one brush and represented through stereotypes,” said Dr. Asani. In many foreign countries, negative stereotypes about America prevail. To dispel these misconceptions, the State Department has created an office to improve America’s international image. “In the context of war, stereotypes are used to dehumanize the enemy,” said Dr. Asani. “People are not able to recognize people different from themselves, and this leads to tragedies like the Holocaust, Bosnia, and Rwanda.” After his prepared speech, Dr. Asani answered questions from the audience. In response to a question from Daniel Bacon ’06 about the internet and its role in people’s perception of Islam, Dr. Asani said, “The internet has allowed more Muslims to express themselves, and now you can find views from opposing groups. This is important because now you can get a sense of plurality in Islam, whereas in textbooks or newspapers you only get one perspective.” Prateek Kumar ’07 asked Dr. Asani about his views on racial profiling. Dr. Asani responded, “Profiling certain groups is based on stereotypes. Does that mean that all Muslims are terrorists? What about a person like me? I am an advocate of peace, but I am also Muslim. During World War II, racial profiling and stereotypes led to the internment of the Japanese. We need to be careful about treading on people’s individual and civil rights.” Erika Chow ’06 was curious to learn about some of the common erroneous beliefs Muslims hold about America. Dr. Asani replied, “One way in which stereotypes are formed is through American media, and not the news, but things like soap operas. These form images of American lifestyles, morals, and ethical values all over the world. The other way is through U.S. foreign policy. During the Cold War, the U.S. supported dictatorial regimes in the Middle East for strategic reasons. This makes the U.S. look hypocritical. There is a need of greater understanding of the values of U.S. society, especially those on which this country was founded.” Dr. Asani has taught at Harvard since 1983 and recently received the Harvard Foundation Medal for promoting intercultural and racial understanding.