by KRISTIAN PETERSEN for NEW BOOKS IN ISLAMIC STUDIES on JUNE 2, 2016: 

Edward Said’s 1978 book, Orientalism, dramatically shifted how people think about the production of knowledge and representations of the Other. His ideas have been championed and critiqued with dozens of books expanding his work on the construction of the East in western imagination. However, very rarely have we investigated the dual move of representing the Other and self-representation from the other perspective. In his new book, Arab Occidentalism: Images of America in the Middle East (I.B.Tauris, 2015), Eid Mohamed, Assistant Professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, has undertaken this task.

With great success he offers a portrait of the shifting attitudes towards America and American Culture in the Arab imagination in the post 9/11 media landscape. He found that Arab cultural producers have a complicated relationship with America, seeing it as problematic while also often representative of their own values. Mohamed delineates how this debate unfolds in literature, cinema, and news media. In our conversation we explored the dynamics of Occidentalism through Arabic novels about Egyptians living abroad in the United States, news depictions of the 2008 shoe throwing event with President George W. Bush in Iraq, the reactions to the election of Barack Obama, the Egyptian film industry, and contemporary Arab-American literary products.

LISTEN TO INTERVIEW WITH MOHAMED

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“Opinion leaders and policy-makers unfortunately have a tendency to equate Lebanese Shi‘ism with Hizbullah and to assume all Shi‘a are connected to Iran. My book documents very different dynamics. I do examine the spread of the Arab-Israeli conflict to Senegal, but this plays out differently in the diaspora than it does in Lebanon. I also illustrate the making of an indigenous African Shi‘ism that, while inspired by the Iranian revolution, does not aim to establish an Islamic government and overthrow Senegal’s secular state. It is important that policy-makers better understand the complexities of the dynamic – not static – Shi‘i Muslim world.” —- Mara Leichtman, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Michigan State University

by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary with MARA LEICHTMAN on MARCH 18, 2016: 

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Mara Leichtman
Mara Leichtman

This past Fall, Mara Leichtman, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Michigan State University, published her latest book — Shi‘i Cosmopolitanisms in Africa: Lebanese Migration and Religious Conversion in Senegal (Indiana University Press, 2015). It followed her 2009 edited volume (with Mamadou Diouf) New Perspectives on Islam in Senegal: Conversion, Migration, Wealth, Power, and Femininity (Palgrave Macmillan).

Educated at the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins University, and Brown University, Leichtman has been a visiting fellow at Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin, the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World in Leiden, the Netherlands, and the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University.

How did she come to be interested in the topic of Lebanese Shi‘a in Senegal?

Leichtman told ISLAMiCommentary that while earning her master’s degree in international relations from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University a professor gave her an article about the Lebanese community in Ivory Coast — knowing of her interests in both Africa and the Middle East. It piqued her curiosity.

So when she started the doctoral program in sociocultural anthropology at Brown University, she decided to research the Lebanese community in Abidjan.

“This was in 1999, when there was a coup d’état in Ivory Coast, which is what led me to Senegal, as a more stable option,” she said in a written interview with ISLAMiCommentary.

As her research got underway, Lebanese in Senegal regularly asked her why she wanted to study their community. In response she said she drew upon her origins in Michigan — and its significant Lebanese (and particularly Lebanese Shi‘i) community.

“My mother happened to work at the time with a woman of Lebanese origin who was born in a village in Senegal,” she said. “Lebanese in Senegal were delighted to hear of this personal connection.”

While she set out to study the Shi‘i Lebanese community in West Africa, she didn’t know in advance that she would also find Senegalese Shi‘i converts.

Senegal is predominantly Sunni Muslim (94%) following the Maliki school of jurisprudence with Sufi influences. While Shi‘i Muslims make up only a small minority of the population, Leichtman said the number is growing as Senegalese convert. (Christians make up about 5% of the Senegalese population, and an even smaller demographic continues to practice what is referred to as “African traditional religion.”)

It was the first Lebanese shaykh in Senegal, Shaykh Abdul Mun‘am al-Zayn, who initially told Leichtman that Senegalese were converting to Shi‘i Islam. She was able to eventually connect with Senegalese Shi‘i leaders through Walfadjri, a media conglomerate that hosted a weekly radio show featuring Muslims of different denominations and regularly invited various Senegalese Shi‘a to participate.

In this interview, Leichtman introduces us to these communities and the importance of learning more about them. Continue reading

by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN for DUKE TODAY on SEPTEMBER 30, 2015:

Arabic instructor Abdel Razzaq Ben Tarif inside the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies.
Arabic instructor Abdel Razzaq Ben Tarif inside the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies.

Jordan native Abdel Razzaq Ben Tarif shares a favorite quote from the Dalai Lama: “Share your knowledge; it’s a way to achieve immortality.”

This fall, he’s following that command but teaching Arabic at Duke, joining the university’s team of Arabic instructors. He has six years of experience teaching Arabic in a classroom setting, a master’s of arts teaching Arabic for speakers of other language (2009), and a master’s in American studies (2014) from the University of Jordan.

“Ben Tarif was highly recommended by Duke students who studied with him in Jordan through the Kenan refugee program in Amman led by Suzanne Shanahan,” said Mbaye Lo, assistant professor of the practice and Arabic Language Program Coordinator at Duke. “So, he is somewhat familiar with the Duke culture; and with him, we hope to secure a diverse, and yet highly talented Arabic faculty to serve our students.”

Below, Ben Tarif talks with Julie Harbin, communications specialist for the Duke Islamic Studies Center.

QUESTION: You’re an award winning Arabic instructor who’s had a variety of experiences teaching Arabic, teaching UN employees, diplomats, defense department officials and U.S. soldiers and university students. How can you compare these experiences?

BEN TARIF: I think teaching Arabic for different groups is challenging, because

you are dealing with many people from many backgrounds, and each have their own goal to study the language. When we talk about diplomats, soldiers and defense department officials, going back to school again to learn a language can be frustrating to them. You have to create your own curriculum that meets their needs to learn the language, and this is fun.

QUESTION: Why is it so important for people to learn Arabic? What should people know about learning Arabic?

BEN TARIF: Arabic is the fifth most commonly spoken native language in the world and the official language in in more than 20 countries. There are more than 300 million native speakers of the language. The Arab-speaking world has a rich cultural heritage with its own unique art, music, literature, cuisine, and way of life. Also there are financial incentives for learning Arabic. The US government has designated Arabic as a language of strategic importance. Continue reading

“The communities I write about in the book — South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh immigrants — are “othered” and scapegoated today in our country. But at the same time, they are finding the strength, courage and purpose to reshape America by telling their own narratives, building community power, and changing policy.” — Deepa Iyer 

Column » ‘By the Book’ with Joseph Preville

41j8PRILBzL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_by JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE and JULIE POUCHER HARBIN  for ISLAMiCommentary on SEPTEMBER 29, 2015:

A vibrant multiracial America is emerging right before our eyes.  According to a new report by the Pew Research Center, “Multiracial Americans are at the cutting edge of social and demographic change in the U.S.—young, proud, tolerant and growing at a rate three times as fast as the population as a whole.” (“Multiracial in America,” June 11, 2015).

Deepa Iyer takes a looks at the struggles behind this momentous change in the United States and the challenges ahead in We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future (The New Press, November 2015).  She writes that America “has yet to fully confront the scope and effects of racial anxiety, Islamophobia, and xenophobia that have permeated our national narratives and policies in the years since 9/11.  We must change this legal, cultural, and political climate of hostility and suspicion, especially as communities perceived as ‘others’ change American cities, schools, and neighborhoods due to population increases and migration patterns.”

A native of Kerala, India, Deepa Iyer immigrated to the United States at the age of 12 with her parents and brother to Louisville, Kentucky.  In a 2014 interview, she reflected on her early experiences as an immigrant to America: “It did not take long to find out I was on the margins, that I was not mainstream. In the mid-80s in Kentucky, people were used to a black or white racial paradigm.  People like me fit neither.  I definitely had my share of experiencing some bullying and harassment at school, which shaped my sense of being different.”

Iyer, currently a Senior Fellow at Center for Social Inclusion, is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and University of Notre Dame Law School.  An activist, writer and lawyer, she has served as a Trial Attorney for the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice and as Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). 

Her work on immigrant and civil rights issues began at the Asian American Justice Center in the late 1990s. While at SAALT for nearly a decade, she shaped the formation of the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations (NCSO), a network of local South Asian groups, and served as Chair of the National Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA). Iyer’s essays on immigration, the post 9/11 backlash, and racism have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, USA Today, Al-Jazeera and the Nation.

With contentious national debates on race, religion, and immigration making the news every day, We Too Sing America is a fresh voice in the conversation.

Deepa Iyer discusses her new book in this exclusive interview.

Deepa Iyer (credit: Les Talusan Photography)
Deepa Iyer (credit: Les Talusan Photography)

Why did you choose to take the title of your book from a Langston Hughes poem?  Does the poem have special meaning for you as an activist for social justice?

Almost ninety years ago, Langston Hughes wrote a poem about how Black people, though they were marginalized and rejected in all aspects of American society, grew stronger and wiser. He wrote that they too “sing America.” The communities I write about in the book — South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh immigrants — are “othered” and scapegoated today in our country. But at the same time, they are finding the strength, courage and purpose to reshape America by telling their own narratives, building community power, and changing policy. That is why the poem resonated with me. Continue reading