Not a seat was empty in Avard Dixon 118 when the department of religious studies hosted a panel on Islam, orientalism, and representation. The Nov. 12 event attracted professors, Sackville citizens, and Mount Allison students.
James Devine, a political science professor at Mt. A, discussed the political causes and effects of “othering,” a cultural device used to generalize other cultures and distinguish them itself.
“One of the questions that was raised is, ‘Can we ever get past this?’” Devine said. “I don’t think we can ever put that process of ‘othering’ behind us completely.”
Devine said that despite this tendency to ‘other’ different cultures, education and self reflection can minimize some of the effects.
“If you are aware of [the tendency], you can fight it. If you are not aware of it, you can’t,” Devine said.
The panel consisted of Devine and three professors from the department of religious studies: Barbara Clayton, Andrew Wilson, and Linsday McCumber.
Sarah Kulkarni, a first-year student from Aurangabad, India, said that the discussion helped inform students about Islam.
“It’s necessary for people to learn that Islam is not a violent religion,” Kulkarni said.
Following 45 minutes of presentation from professors, the panel accepted questions and comments from the audience. But while many students found the panel informative, they said it was not conducive for discussion.
“I feel like the environment wasn’t set for a full-on, proper discussion,” said Abdulkareem Andeejani, a first-year international relations student from Saudi Arabia.
With a full room and a sensitive topic, the question period lasted only 15 minutes, and the event ended 30 minutes earlier than planned.
“The panel was good, but people have misconceptions that they would like to say freely, but they think that it’s politically incorrect so that can’t open it up [to discussion],” Kulkarni said.
Wilson agreed. “We didn’t have the buzzing conversation that we were hoping for, and maybe it is because it is a bit sensitive,” Wilson said. “In the future, it might be better that we break people up into groups to feel a little more comfortable to say the wrong thing.”
Hours before the event, Rayan Bouhlel, a fourth-year chemistry student, condemned the promotion of the event on Facebook. Bouhlel said he found the image of Jafar (the antagonist from Disney’s Aladdin), which was used to promote the event, to be offensive.
“This is the biggest collective mess-up from a group of ‘academics’ I’ve seen at this university so far,” Bouhlel wrote in the post.
The event organizers called this a misunderstanding, saying it was an example of the misrepresentation of Islam, not of Islam itself. Bouhlel later told The Argosy that while he understood their intention, they should have used a different image.
“So much of it also happens on a passive level, particularly in things like popular culture,” said McCumber, who spoke on the misrepresentation of Islam in Aladdin. “It’s not like an intentional construction of our identity, it’s just watching Aladdin when you’re a kid or watching the news.”
With the prevalence of “othering” in popular culture, the religious studies professors said they felt a responsibility to raise awareness of the issues.
“These processes, these structures are powerful, they are important but they are potentially problematic,” Wilson said.
While none of the professors thought the process of othering was avoidable, they said understanding it was essential.
“Are we going to be complicit in promoting and perpetuating views of the ‘other’ that do have implications for how we deal on the international scale?” said Clayton.