Date April 29, 2024
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Speaking at Brown, Amer Ahmed shares strategies to confront discrimination, Islamophobia

In an event organized by Brown’s Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity, Ahmed encouraged campus communities to deepen their knowledge and familiarity with Muslim peoples and history.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In the course of his visits to college campuses across the nation for more than 15 years, Amer F. Ahmed’s greatest challenges to confronting Islamophobia have been a fundamental misunderstanding of Islam and pervasive stereotypes.

The solution to addressing Islamophobia — and all forms of discrimination, for that matter — is to engage in learning and dialogue with people who have differing beliefs, he asserted.

“No matter the way you show up in an issue, there’s a lot of context out there to gain…” Ahmed said. “I would strongly encourage you to encourage not just yourself, but others, to engage in learning more context, even if you believe you’re on the right side of the issue.”

The imperative to advance knowledge of the social, cultural, political and historical context of Islam was among Ahmed’s key calls-to-action during a Monday, April 29, address at Brown University titled “Addressing Islamophobia: Dispelling Myths to Break Down Barriers.”

Ahmed, who was born and raised in Ohio as the son of Indian Muslim immigrants, works at the University of Vermont as vice provost for diversity, equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer — one of only a handful of Muslim chief diversity officers in the country, he noted. During his talk at Brown, he began by offering a “basic level setting” of Muslim history and a quick array of statistics, noting that most followers of Islam are not Arab, that there are large populations of Christian and Jewish Arabs, and that Islam does not espouse violence.

“It’s important to make a distinction between what a religion teaches and what people do,” Ahmed said. “People do all different kinds of things in the name of religion.”

There is also “this conflation of Arab and Muslim as if they’re the same thing,” said Ahmed, who shared that 20% of Palestinian people are Christian; half of Lebanese people are Christian; 10% of Egyptians are Christian; and 14% of people in Syria and Jordan are Christian. “The largest Muslim population in the world is in Indonesia. Arabs are only 18-20% of Muslims in the whole world.”

It’s important to make a distinction between what a religion teaches and what people do. People do all different kinds of things in the name of religion.

Amer F. Ahmed Chief Diversity Officer, University of Vermont
Amer Ahmed speaks at a podium at Brown

However, he added, “this is why Islamophobia functions as a form of racism, as much as it is about religion, because the perception is that we’re brown, and so that therefore impacts groups like Arab Christians, Sikhs and Hindus.”

To address the racism that’s inextricably intertwined with Islamophobia, higher education can play an important role as a nexus for learning, multiculturalism, freedom of expression and academic inquiry, he asserted.

“We cannot be in conflict with the democratic values that higher education espouses — and we see that democratic values are under threat in our world,” Ahmed said. “Higher education needs to be with the grain of advancing democracy, and that’s going to mean we’re doing to have be uncomfortable around very difficult topics, and we’re going to have to lean into that discomfort. The reality is that learning doesn’t happen in a place of comfort; it happens in a place of discomfort.”

That discomfort feels palpable on many college campuses, including at Brown, noted Sylvia Carey-Butler, Brown’s vice president for institutional equity and diversity, who offered welcome remarks and facilitated a Q&A with Ahmed.

“We all know how difficult it is across the country, and indeed on our campus: just take a look outside,” said Carey-Butler, who leads Brown’s Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity, which organized the event.

Steps from the doors of the Salomon Center for Teaching, where Ahmed spoke, demonstrators were encamped on the College Green as part of a national movement of protests on college campuses and beyond in response to the Israel-Hamas war that began on Oct. 7.

“I know it’s a very active day on campus and it is incredibly meaningful for me to be here today, specifically at Brown University…” Ahmed said. “This climate is not going to change tomorrow — it’s just not. And so we have to be able to come together and support each other in our healing.”

As an administrator at the University of Vermont, Ahmed shared with the audience his anguish over the violent attack against Brown University junior Hisham Awartani and two of his childhood friends, who grew up together in the West Bank and were injured in a Nov. 25 shooting in Burlington, Vermont, “three blocks from my office,” Ahmed said.

“I don’t even know how to express how difficult that week and the weeks since have been,” Ahmed said. “Being in the middle of the worst violence that’s been directed towards Palestinian people, and towards Arab and Muslim people [in the U.S.], since Oct. 7 has left an indelible mark on our community, and I know on this community.”

Whether it’s an overt violent attack, or a more subtle form of Islamophobia, Ahmed called on community members to lean on each other, and to use campus reporting systems to address incidents of bias so they can be addressed and ameliorated.

“That reporting is important,” Ahmed said. “Going to those spaces where you get support on your campus are important.”

As Ahmed continues to advance his commitment to confronting Islamophobia and enabling others to join in the work, he said it’s important to embrace a healing mindset.

“If we’re only operating from a space of responding to our trauma, it doesn’t put us in a place of operating with behavior at our highest,” Ahmed said. “Our commitment to our collective healing is important.”