Study Abroad: How are Muslims Being Impacted by Stereotypes?

The Wisdom of our Youth

The New York Times recently reported about the increased number of American students studying abroad in the Middle East.  The article, Life Lessons in the Middle East, covers several students’ experiences at institutions such as the American University of Cairo and the American University of Beirut, documenting their language study and travel.  The article states that these students have been not been met with any anti-American sentiment, rather with the occasional disagreement regarding foreign policy.  This in an uplifting piece, suggesting that despite increased conflict in the world, we still seek to learn about each other and to explore our commonalities, moving beyond the negative stereotypes that are frequently perpetuated about this region of the world.

Sounds peachy, right?

I thought so, until I heard a radio interview about the recent situation that Mr. Yahya Wehelie, a 26-year-old Muslim/US citizen, found himself in while attempting to return home to the US after a period abroad.  Mr. Wehelie was born in Fairfax, Virginia to Somali parents and he spent 18 months studying in Yemen. He left in early May, only to be told upon arrival in Egypt (where he was to change planes on his way home to Virginia) that he was on the “no fly list” and could not board the plane.  Why? Because he had spoken with some questionable people who were being watched by the FBI while in Yemen. He claims that he had shared no more than polite conversation with these people and that he simply wanted to return home to “his mother’s cooking.” Despite being questioned by the FBI several times, he was not permitted to return home until 2 months later, and only after legal intervention.

Ironically, Mr. Wehelie had gone to Yemen to study Arabic at his mother’s request.  According to MSNBC’s article, Wehelie’s family said “it was natural for the family to send him there to study. Many Somalis live in Yemen, and educational opportunities there are cheaper than in other parts of the Middle East.”

Muslims abroad are increased targets for discrimination, even when simply attempting to earn educational credentials to further their careers. Mr. Olugu Ukpai, a Christian Nigerian PhD candidate studying in England, wrote a heartfelt op-ed in the New American Media (NAM) that was picked up by the Muslim Observer earlier this year about his experience as a student in England.  Prompted by the media’s reporting about Mr. Umar Faruq Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner in December, Ukpai describes his concerns about Nigerians being labeled as being from “the hotbed of Al Queda,” as the media seemed to describe his home country after the December incident. As a result of one Nigerian’s involvement in an attempted terrorist attack, Nigeria is now on a list of 14 countries whose citizens will be singled out for additional screening when coming to the US. (My humble opinion is that this is ridiculous; have we not realized that anyone, including an American, can be part of Al Queda’s network?)  Ukpai also writes about the fear that Nigerian parents have of sending their children abroad, skeptical of “cults” that their children could be exposed to. The article also cites a study by the University of Notre Dame in 2009 that found that parents tended to know only 10 percent of what their children were doing abroad.

We all want to live in as safe a world as possible, yet how does our nation strike a fine balance between protecting our citizens and not discriminating against Muslims?  It is not ironic that the number of Americans going abroad to study in the Middle East are being countered with increasing numbers of Muslims studying abroad landing on the no fly list (pun intended) once outside of the US? Education is supposed to be about having new experiences, yet if one portion of the potential student equation is constantly questioned about their role in the intercultural dialogue, how can we ever move forward to a more peaceful world?  Don’t we create more of the same old “us/them” mentality this way?  And isn’t that completely counterproductive to learning in a cross-cultural setting?

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts and experiences around this issue.  Feel free to comment.

(Note:  I have edited this article since its original posting to clarify two points: 1) Mr. Ukpai is a Christian Nigerian and 2) Mr. Ukpai’s original op-ed was published in the New American Media.  It was picked up at a later date by the Muslim Observer, which is where I read the piece initially.)

  • Fred Schulze

    It is very unfortunate that certain people are singled out in these circumstances and it is a very fine line about how to be safe yet not discriminate. I agree that anyone could be part of a terrorist organization, but frankly, at this time there is a certain segment that seems to be attempting to cause harm to others. My humble opinion is to err on the side of safety and not take any chances of a disaster happening. I firmly believe that if the vast majority of the peaceful Islamic people would speak out and act out against the fanatics that are terrorizing the world, it would mean a great deal in not only helping root out these people, but also show the rest of the world that Islam is a religion of peace.

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