A war of/and/for words by Kherta Sherif Mohamed

A war of/and/for words by Kherta Sherif Mohamed

A Reader Response to Thea Renda Abu El-Haj’s

Race, Politics and Arab American Youth: Shifting Frameworks for Conceptualizing Educational Equity

I sit down, and as rain drops stain the window sill, I take in a deep breath. I wonder why I am so reluctant to write this response. My guess is partly out of laziness and partly out of the subconscious awareness that I expect to be in a foul mood once I’m done reading this article. The weightlessness of the papers in hand, deceptively hide the power of the words they contain. It’s just a paper, man. Snap out of it, I think to myself. But I’m lying to myself and I know it. It’s not “just a paper” and that’s why it bothers me so much. The Founding Fathers said, as they inked the Declaration of Independence that “the pen is mightier than the sword”. It is this war – the war for words – that makes a warrior out of each and every one of us. Yet, as I attempt to prepare my provisions, I find myself underequipped – at a loss for words, both literally and figuratively. What can I possibly say to make it all make sense? I scan the seemingly endless pages of text for inspiration and almost instinctively, my eyes are caught by the following set of words, – “El-Haj,”– the author’s last name.

My mind then drifts in another direction – 6, 314 miles away, to a land, indeed a region of the world most people would rather not think about. I think of the 3 million people who have traveled by land, sea, and air toward a spiritual home of the heart. Sacrificing their entire lives, many save pay cheque after meagre pay cheque to make the spiritual journey home, to Makkah – in Arabic – “Mukaramah” – meaning blessed. Today marks the first day of Hajj.

I think about how, in the coming days, millions of people will follow in footsteps thousands of years old, treaded by a man, who despite the inability to read or write is the most beloved figure in the eyes of Muslims around the world. I wonder, too, at how different images of this man are perceived. I am struck, again and again; with how the image of a man with bombs strapped to his turban differs from the man we knew to let his grandchildren climb his back as he prayed.

It the social construction of these differing, dichotomized perceptions that Thea Renda Abu El-Hajj seeks to disrupt. The problems faced by Arab youth, she states, are primarily those of “misrecognition and non-recognition” which she defines a space of disjunction that results in being misrepresented as the “enemy within” while suffering the non-recognition of being ethnically “White”. Despite the invisibility of their whiteness, Arab youth still face violence, marginalization, and cultural imperialism that sets them apart from the majority. “Our identity”, Charles Taylor (2002) states, “is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrepresentation of others, and so a person or a group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion” if the society around them mirrors a contemptible or demeaning picture of themselves (p. 25). As such, Arab American students are forced into a space, a hyphenated reality – to quote Wah (2000) -“that both binds and divides” (p. 72). Because knowledge about Arab culture within the school curriculum has been stereotypical, misinformed, or absent all together, students of Arab and Muslim backgrounds are left feeling alienated and misunderstood – both inside and outside their classrooms. While many theorists have pointed toward “cultural understanding” as the solution to the misgivings of the past, Abu El-Hajj challenges our conceptions that cultural understanding alone is sufficient to address the issues of marginalization and cultural violence that are the often the product of underlying “institutionalized processes through which schools produce racial hierarchies”(p. 16). Thus, the idea here is that understanding culture is an important but “insufficient framework” in addressing the complex structures that create racial subordination. We have seen throughout this course that processes of institutional racialization work to subvert the growth and development of many racial minorities. Thea Abu El-Haj points out, that in a post-9/11 context, the reality of this marginalization, and the violence it creates, is all too real for Arab and Muslim youth. We are often told that the modern world is a ‘global’ entity; yet despite trends toward globalization and increased interconnection between parts of the whole, the world remains in many ways as polarized as it was in the past. What has changed however, are the groups experiencing the exclusion. According to Abu El-Haj, the violence directed towards Arab, Middle Eastern, and South Asian communities after September 11th is a prime example. While general perceptions of the Middle East and the ‘Orient’ have never been of high regard in the West, the events of 9/11 solidified ideologies labelling individuals of Arab decent and those identifying themselves as Muslim as “the enemy within” (p. 16).

It is within this context, of racialized violence and exclusion, that Abu El-Hajj frames her argument: state-directed policies in the United States have created “a new body of persons who fall outside the rights and protection afforded citizens” (p. 18). The situation in Canada is not much different.

And just like that, what once seemed so far from home is now knocking at your door. From detentions and extraditions to the raiding and policing of mosques around the world, Arab and Muslim Americans live in constant fear for their property and their persons. While I am not the wife of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who while on his way back from traveling with his family was detained and sent to his native Syria where he was tortured and abused, I wonder how many degrees of separation have to be present before I care? I am not the sister of Omar Khadr, a child born in 1986, and raised in Scarborough, Ontario only to spend the formative years of his life as a child soldier “growing up” in a Guantanamo jail cell. He may not be my brother, but my conscious for human rights forces me to care. Because, even when I want to be selfish about it, I am reminded on a daily basis that it could just as easily have been me. From my father being refused carry-on luggage while every other passenger had two; or my mother’s paranoia of my sister’s first name and last name constantly triggering security alerts, I can hear the echoes clearly knocking at my door.

The issue, then, is not simply that “practitioners need more and better information about Arab culture; it is a question of what view of this culture is offered” (p. 23). As Young (1990) states, cultural imperialism means to “experience how the dominant meanings of society render the particular perspectives of one’s own group invisible at the same time they stereotype one’s group and mark it out as the ‘Other’” (p. 58-59). Through countless channels, the dominant messages we hear teach us to situate “Islam as Other” – the antithesis to civilization, freedom, and all that is good. Arab American and Muslim American children are thus taught whether explicitly through their television screens or implicitly through their classroom textbooks that “they” are not as good as “us”. Educational literature, Abu El-Haj points out, has resulted in both the negative visibility and positive invisibility of Arabs, Arab Americans and Muslims in the United States.

Terrorists, oil sheikhs, and oppressed women aside, I would like you to now to think about another conception of difference – to a different type of “and” and “not-and”, toward a bridge of sorts, that is not “here” nor “there” but on a metaphoric and proverbial middle ground; to think critically about what these dichotomies are teaching us and our children. Responding to the needs of Arab youth demands that both educators and policy makers alike acknowledge and ensure that “the collective identities of these youth are accurately and visibly included in the curriculum and that culturally appropriate ways of interacting” and teaching about difference take center stage (p. 15). Abu El-Haj argues that schooling for democracy should foster deliberation and dissent rather than conformity. This type of critical cosmopolitanism asks both teachers and students to embrace a “pedagogy of discomfort”, one that above other things focuses on difference rather than ignoring it (pg. 29). Creating culturally responsive classrooms has the potential to not only lessen prejudices and misconceptions, but also serve Arab and Muslim students by helping them to build a positive and confident self-image. Martha Nussbaum reminds us that “we are all citizens of the world and that although we may maintain our local identifications, we must make all persons part of our community of concern, not in some abstract way, but through active deliberation and concrete action” (p. 31). In understanding that we are indeed ‘the same because we are different’, we move towards a more human way of looking at things. Therefore, the call here is to forbid for ourselves the type of mono-vision that has created so much misunderstanding; and to look closer at that the humanity of all human beings. To strive to become more human in the process of educating and being educated. Lingering on the spaces that teach us about the “in-between-ness” of our commonality can lead to a new currere – a new way forward.

As Aoki would say, Tuum Este. It is up to you.


Abu El-Haj, T. R. (2006). Race, Politics, and Arab American Youth: Shifting Frameworks for Conceptualizing Educational Equity. Educational Policy, 20 (1), pp. 13-34

Aoki, T. (1979). Reflections of a Japanese Canadian Teacher Experiencing Ethnicity. In William F. Pinar & Rita Irwin (Eds.), Curriculum in a New Key, pp. 333-348.

Wah, F. (2000). Half-Bred Poetics. Chapter in Faking It: Poetics and Hybridity, pp. 71-97. Edmonton, Alberta: NeWest Press.