• Thomas Jefferson's Qu'ran: Islam and the Founders
    Thomas Jefferson's Qu'ran: Islam and the Founders

On Monday, March 4, 2019, Southwestern will host the one-day Muslims in Academia Symposium. The colloquium will bring together faculty, students, and community activists to discuss campus climate, inclusion, and equity in the University’s curriculum and in higher education more broadly.

The event is being coordinated by Assistant Professor of Communication Studies Lamiyah Bahrainwala and is made possible by a highly competitive grant from the National Communication Association (NCA), which disburses only five such awards annually. Associate Professor and Chair of History Melissa K. Byrnes has served as a consultant and sounding board in organizing the symposium.

Bahrainwala says that she was inspired to propose the event to the NCA because she has “known students who are social-justice activists, and they have been hardworking, ethical, and extremely passionate. But they can come up against institutional and legal battles, and these students then do not know which resources to turn to. What I’m trying to bring together is not just faculty and students but also activists from the community, such as those in the field of civil-rights advocacy, to help them form allyships.” That is, the symposium will enable members of the Southwestern community to build relationships with experts in the community—“allyships” are based on consistent trust and support between individuals or groups of privilege and individuals or groups who have been historically or currently marginalized. Such allyships can help participants also “recognize how marginalizations overlap,” she says. For example, “the way we talk about Muslim bodies in the U.S. is similar to how we talk about undocumented immigrant bodies in the U.S., and highlighting that is important.”

What I’m trying to bring together is not just faculty and students but also activists from the community, such as those in the field of civil-rights advocacy, to help them form allyships.

The entire symposium is open to the Austin–Georgetown community, but the first half aims to showcase student voices, and the second half speaks directly to faculty and invites others to contribute to how faculty can decolonize their curricula. The morning’s agenda features a panel representing marginalized voices, in which students and faculty from Southwestern as well as civil-rights activists from the community will engage in a frank discussion about their study of Islam, the costs of not having sufficient Muslim faculty to mentor Muslim students, and examples of Muslim exclusion in student life and campus policies. The panelists will also share how they experience current narratives about Muslims—stories that, Bahrainwala says, “take up an inordinate amount of airtime” in the media even though “most of that is not representation by Muslims. So there’s a lot of discussion of Muslims but not a lot of Muslim voices.” She hopes that the symposium will be just one platform Southwestern can provide to enable Muslims to own their own narratives and speak honestly about their place within academic communities. 

The keynote speech will be delivered by Dr. Denise A. Spellberg, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. Spellberg is an interdisciplinary scholar focusing on intellectual, religious, and gender history in the medieval Islamic world as well as Islam and Muslims in early modern and contemporary Europe and U.S. She is the author of Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past (Columbia University Press, 1994), and she’s currently revising a book on the life of ’A’isha bint Abi Bakr, the controversial wife of the Prophet Muhammad. 

Bahrainwala began following Spellberg’s work when the Southwestern professor was a graduate student at UT. While enrolled in a seminar on Islam in Europe and America, Bahrainwala discovered Spellberg’s fascinating book Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders (Knopf, 2013). “I was looking for a historical grounding for my future work,” she says, “but what I did not expect was the incredible gift of [Spellberg’s] research on how Islam actually helped shape the Founding Fathers’ principles. It’s a really remarkable piece of scholarship.” So when Bahrainwala began brainstorming keynote speakers for the Muslims in Academia Symposium, she knew “that Dr. Spellberg would be a great fit.”

After the keynote, a panel of teachers and scholars will lead a workshop on decolonizing curricula and the classroom. The participants will identify how the content of course syllabi—even the syllabus of a social-justice-oriented class—can potentially marginalize students or may fail to include important scholarly contributions published in books and journal articles by underrepresented researchers. Workshop attendants will also discuss gaps in the curriculum and how to address anti-Muslim speech in the classroom. “I’m hoping faculty across Southwestern and even students will really look at the curriculum with a critical eye, give it an honest review, and think about how it can be more inclusive,” says Bahrainwala.

The event provides an important, timely opportunity for discussion considering that the very term Muslim has become racialized, with pundits in the media and commenters across social media not only applying the term to individuals who practice Islam but also erroneously using the label to refer to Arabs more generally—despite the existence for centuries of large populations of Arab Christians around the globe—and even anyone who’s brown. It’s especially relevant to Southwestern because although the University community can look to the Office of Diversity Education, led by Assistant Dean for Student Multicultural Affairs Terri Johnson, or to the Center for Diversity and Social Justice (CDSJ) to foster inclusivity and celebrate diversity across campus, “SU is located in one of the most anti-Muslim areas in Texas,” says Bahrainwala. She recounts that Georgetown is flanked by Irving, Texas, where Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old Muslim student inventor, was falsely accused and arrested for allegedly creating and bringing a hoax bomb to school in 2015. Less than three hours south of Georgetown, the gold-domed mosque in Victoria, Texas, was burned to the ground in 2017. And Southwestern itself is situated beside a cemetery where students regularly encounter gravestones that are festooned with Confederate flags. So “SU and the Georgetown community need this, and more, antiracist efforts,” Bahrainwala says.

The direct outcome of the Muslims in Academia Symposium may not necessarily be particular actions on the parts of students, faculty, and staff. Rather, Bahrainwala is more concerned about how participants feel after the event: “My goal is that everyone should feel nourished.” She aims to create a protected space for reflection and conversation as well as a welcoming opportunity for students, faculty, and community activists to form and feed allyships. At the institutional level, the organizer’s ambitions are aspirational. “I also want Southwestern to position ourselves as a leader in this field,” she comments, with this symposium being only one of many to come. She hopes that winning the NCA grant will not only help her continue to move the discipline of communication studies forward but also “bring really positive attention to our small University. Because I love Southwestern, and I love what it does. I’ve never been in such an energizing place before.”


Organizer: Dr. Lamiyah Bahrainwala
Date: March 4, 2019
Time: 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
Location: Howry Center (8:30 a.m.–12 p.m.) and Olin 105 (12 p.m.–4:30 p.m.)
This event is free and open to the public. Food will be provided by the wonderful Peace Bakery and Deli in North Austin.

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