08 Mar 2024

Islamophobia and Anti-Arabism Working Group Q+A


by Shona Simkin

Last fall, Dean Srikant Datar announced the formation of four working groups to address current issues on campus: Antisemitism, Islamophobia and Anti-Arabism, Classroom Culture and Norms, and Free Expression and Community Values. Below is our conversation with the faculty co-chairs of the Islamophobia and Anti-Arabism Working Group, Hakeem (Keem) Belo-Osagie and Kristin Mugford, about their priorities, discoveries, and plans for making HBS feel supportive and inclusive for Arab and Muslim members of the School's community.

What are the main issues your group is aiming to address?
Kristin Mugford: We have three primary work streams that are similar, at a high level, to the work activities of the Antisemitism working group (which I also co-chair). Our Arab and Muslim and our Jewish communities have had a very challenging last six months. They have experienced hateful speech, isolation, and fear. Yet the manifestations are different for each of these communities and, I expect the learning and actions from this work will be different, too. We want to listen intently to determine the most effective ways to serve the unique needs of our Arab and Muslim communities.

Hakeem Belo-Osagie: The first workstream aims to understand the experiences of our Arab and Muslim students, young alumni, staff, and faculty. Then, we need to identify action steps we can take at the School to ensure everyone feels that they belong and can do their best work here. We're not trying to simply write a report; our goal is to implement change.

The second workstream is education. How do we ensure all members of our community are aware of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim biases and stereotypes? Are our current cases portraying Arabs and Muslims in a positive, negative, or neutral light? In what ways are our cases perpetuating stereotypes? Do we need more cases that feature Arab and Muslim business leaders?

Importantly, the Islamophobia and anti-Arabism and the antisemitism groups are working together to identify opportunities for additional foundational skill-building for students during the MBA Required Curriculum. HBS classrooms and the case method are grounded in discussion and participation. We need to be sure all our students fully understand what it means to actively listen, are open to challenging their internal views, and are aware of their own tendencies and biases. Working together, we want to strengthen the skills that will enable our students to learn and contribute while they are here at HBS and be more effective leaders once they leave.

The third workstream is an after-action review of how HBS responded in the fall so that we can more effectively support our community the next time a difficult situation arises.

What are some of the ways that Islamophobia and anti-Arabism appear?
HB-O: Classic stereotypes portray Arabs as extremists and Islam as a violent, intolerant, anti-female religion. These tropes are dangerous and inaccurate and fail to recognize a distinction between a country, its leadership, and the predominant religion of its people.

KM: It's interesting that it's called Islamophobia—a fear of Islam. Think about how often the villains in media in recent decades have been Arab or Muslim. There are, sadly, few examples in the U.S. where the good guy is Arab or Muslim. These portrayals further perpetuate negative stereotypes.

HB-O: It’s important to note that this is not just an American issue. Anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment is endemic all over the world.

What are some of the challenges facing the working group?
HB-O: One challenge is how to create a safe environment in which people can speak frankly, ask questions, and unburden themselves without fear of saying the wrong thing. I can see many of our Jewish community members feeling concerned that what they say will be interpreted as anti-Arab. Similarly, Arab and Muslim community members do not want their comments to be perceived as antisemitic. One of the things that I'm very keen to do understand is what it was like before October 7 and what it has been like after, so that we know which issues have been on campus for many years now. For example, what was the experience of our Muslim students on campus following the 2017 U.S. Muslim ban?

KM: There is a lot of well-justified anxiety from our Muslim and Arab community about disclosing their identity and speaking candidly. We know our Muslim and Arab students have experienced hateful comments and interactions. Other members of our community—women who wear a hijab or other head covering, for example—feel self-conscious on campus and in their daily lives. Our working group takes confidentiality very seriously with the goal of creating the space for increased candor. We need to build trust—and that takes time.

Our Muslim community members come from a variety of countries—some are Arab, some are not. Some of our Arab community members are Muslim, some are not. We need to make sure that we are hearing the symphony of voices and understanding their different experiences.

Another challenge is that people are often quick to make assumptions about someone else’s views on the Israel/Gaza War. For example, if someone expresses concern about the loss of innocent life and dire circumstances in Gaza, they might be unfairly labeled as supporting Hamas or denying Israel’s right to exist. These inaccurate assumptions silence constructive discourse and isolate our communities.

HB-O: We want to be sure that we're hearing from both the vocal minority and the silent majority. We also want to better understand why the silent majority remains silent. I think that's critical in what the working group does.

How will you go about this?
KM: We start with listening. We are offering focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and anonymous feedback options for community members. We are putting together a student advisory group and have several students working with us to lead our efforts with students and young alumni. We also have an active outreach to staff. We hope to learn a lot more in the next few weeks.

HB-O: Current students are very important to this effort because they will lead many of the interviews—students talking to other students can be much more revealing. We’ve asked the students to compare their experiences at HBS to those they had in college. Many have gone to international schools that are more diverse than HBS. What can we learn from them? On the faculty side, our Muslim numbers are very low, but as one of them who also is from a multi-religious family, I’m working to advance understanding.

How might HBS be particularly suited to this type of work?
KM: There are three things that uniquely serve HBS in this work. First is our community values; they provide a solid foundation on which to build. Second is our bias towards action. Dean Datar announced these groups a few months ago and that has given us a very valuable head start. Third is the case method. The pedagogy in all our classrooms is rooted in dialogue and actively engaging with diverse viewpoints.

HB-O: I sense that most people on campus are open to dialogue and would like to see a situation in which groups work together towards a better understanding of cultural and religious differences. Students will work with people of different religions and from different countries in their future careers. Having classes of 900 students, 40 percent of whom are international, we already have a relatively diverse community.

What we’re trying to do is to make sure that we have outlined the key issues, that we’re hearing all that is being said, and that we can come up with concrete actions. The biggest problem is that we don’t have much time. We’re pushing very hard to make sure that the outgoing second-year students are part of the learning process as well.

What are some of the outcomes you’re hoping for?
HB-O: I am from Nigeria, a country where there have been very deep divisions and a civil war in which over a million people lost their lives. I’ve realized that it’s too easy for people to live in their separate worlds and grow up with very different views about themselves relative to others. This has a tremendous impact on the way in which they behave and relate to others. At the end of the day, it's about “othering.” It's about how you relate to others who are different from you, and how you can learn to see the common humanity even as you understand some of the real differences. Ultimately, how can we extend the boundaries of love and grief to a wider circle than our existing ones? My hope is that our work will have an impact in ensuring that students, staff, and faculty have a larger and more accurate picture of the experience of others in the community, and as a result they’ll be better able to relate to each other. I also hope that our students will be more thoughtful leaders as they go forward, running companies and tackling problems that cut across religious, ethnic, and national divisions.

KM: One goal of both the antisemitism and the Islamophobia and anti-Arabism working groups is to advance understanding in the community. Many of us don't fully appreciate and understand what it has felt like for Arab, Jewish, and Muslim members of our community over the last few months. When we are in pain, it's very hard to understand the perspective of others who may also be in pain but for different reasons. Part of what we're trying to do is to advance understanding and make HBS a place where everyone feels included and can have the HBS experience they deserve.

How will you measure success?
HB-O: I don't think that we should expect clear and visible signs of progress. I’m not hopeful there is going to be a great peace agreement or a moment when we can all say, “Well done!” We’ll get a sense of how we’re doing when people start interacting differently. Success for me will be when I see some of our Arab and Muslim students interacting, reaching out, and collaborating with our Israeli and Jewish students and vice versa. I like to think that in the beginning we'll see improvement in how people relate to each other within sections. And then, at the School level, when we can have controversial events and complicated discussions that are calm, productive, and deepen learning.

I hope that expressing and hearing different points of view will be accepted as a normal thing and as an experience that enriches us. Ultimately, success will show up in what people do with their lives after they leave HBS, and that is only something that we can know in retrospect.

KM: We have to remember, however, that a calm environment doesn't mean everything is better or even okay. The types of biases, stereotypes, and fear we're trying to address have, unfortunately, existed for years and we must continue to be actively on the alert for them. This is why we're focusing on actions that will persist and that can be sustained over time. We hope to see signs that our community is more open minded, curious, and aware.

What else would you like our community to know?
HB-O: An important part of this exercise is the after-action review. Something like this will occur again in the future. How will we respond? What works and does not work? What do we need to look out for?

KM: As a community, I think we struggled to fully recognize the grief that followed the Hamas terrorist attack and the Israeli government's response. Our Jewish community is grieving. Our Arab and Muslim communities are grieving. Many others are grieving. Out of fear of saying the wrong thing, too many of us say nothing. It turns out that silence hurts more. Too many of our students and colleagues have been hurt by the silence of others. This grief gets renewed daily by the images of suffering from Gaza and the reality that Israeli hostages are still being held captive.

We can’t assume that because our colleague, seatmate, or friend isn’t visibly showing us their grief that everything's okay. Everything is not okay for too many in our community and we need to keep showing up and caring for one another. We cannot fix the Middle East, but each and every one of us can take steps to make HBS a place where every member of our community feels cared for.

Post a Comment

Comments must be on-topic and civil in tone (with no name calling or personal attacks). Any promotional language or urls will be removed immediately. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.