Middle East Studies Profs Gone Bad

"I'm a professor!"  So cried Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) professor Anila Daulatzai as she was forcibly removed from a Southwest Airlines flight for lying about having a life-threatening allergy to the two dogs in the cabin.  Unable to provide the required medical certificate, Daulatzai, who had demanded that the dogs be removed, then refused to leave the plane.  Daulatzai's Muslim faith was the likely cause of her aversion to dogs, but it was her dishonesty and unwillingness to cooperate that ended in her arrest.

A former visiting assistant professor of Islamic studies at Harvard Divinity School, Daulatzai has joined the growing ranks of Middle East studies academics who run afoul of the law.  Their misdeeds, which range from sexual harassment to domestic abuse and murder to terrorism, demonstrate that being "a professor" is no barrier to criminality.

Just last month, a professor in McGill University's Institute of Islamic Studies whose name has not been released to the public was accused of "sexual violence" by way of stickers left in women's restrooms on campus.  The professor, who is up for tenure this semester, denies the charges, despite former students testifying to his "predatory" behavior.  An open letter to Robert Wisnovsky, director of the Institute of Islamic Studies, from the World Islamic and Middle East Studies Student Association reiterated the allegations, recommending against tenure and concluding that "women are at a disadvantage within the Islamic Studies department."

Likewise, it emerged in 2016 that two prominent professors, U.C. Berkeley's Nezar AlSayyad and UCLA's Gabriel Piterberg, had been sexually harassing female graduate students for years.  AlSayyad, former chair of U.C. Berkeley's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and Piterberg, former director of UCLA's Center for Near Eastern Studies, exploited their positions of power to take advantage of the young women entrusted to their care.  Both universities' perceived negligence and leniency in handling the cases led to student protests and loss of faith of the system.     

Another kind of relationship between student and teacher underpinned a controversy earlier this year involving Rollins College professor Areeje Zufari.  Zufari, a Muslim, resigned in April following a conflict with Christian student Marshall Polston, whom she had falsely accused of stalking after he challenged her anti-Christian, Islamist assertions.  After a wrongful suspension and a disciplinary hearing, Polston was reinstated, while Zufari now teaches at Valencia College.  Even more sordid is Zufari's past, including numerous ties to Islamist associations and an affair with a married man under FBI investigation for terrorist activity.

The violent abuse of women raised its ugly head in the case of former University of Central Florida (UCF) history professor Vibert L. White.  During a 2010 campaign for Orlando City Commissioner, it emerged that would-be candidate White had been arrested at least three times on domestic violence charges involving two former wives.  He was not convicted of any of the charges and claimed that his ex-wives had fabricated the allegations.  The same year, an Orlando judge issued an injunction ordering White to stay away from an ex-girlfriend after she accused him of beating her.

White, no stranger to frivolous lawsuits and accusations of "Islamophobia," is currently suing UCF for discrimination, claiming he was forced to resign in 2015 because, as reported by the Orlando Sentinel, "he is black and Muslim, and because he proposed recruiting more black and Muslim students to the school."  He alleges that he received threats and that the university rejected his early proposals to initiate the now extant Islamic Studies and Middle East Studies programs, but UCF spokesman Chad Binette contends that "his claims have no merit."  Predictably, White, who now bills himself as a "devout Islamic scholar," is being represented by the Islamist organization the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Meanwhile, Youssif Zaghwani Omar, a Libyan-born teacher's assistant in Arabic – not an assistant professor as reported at the time – at the University of Missouri, was arrested on suspicion of child abuse for the violent assault of a 14-year-old female relative in 2015.  Omar drove to her high school, saw that she wasn't wearing a hijab (headscarf), and proceeded to grab her by the hair, slap her across the face, and pull her by the hair down a flight of stairs and into his car.

Villanova University history professor and director of the Center for Arab American Studies Mine Ener's case is perhaps the most horrific.  In 2003, Ener admitted to slashing the throat of her six-month-old Down syndrome-stricken daughter at her mother's home.  Charged with second-degree murder, Ener then committed suicide in jail by smothering herself with a plastic bag.  Reportedly, she had suffered from post-partum depression and expressed thoughts of suicide and harming her baby in order to end her "suffering."  In 2008, Villanova made the controversial decision to dedicate a new section of its library to Ener.

In the realm of terrorism, three University of South Florida Middle East studies professors, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, Bashir Musa Mohammed Nafi, and Sameeh Hammoudeh, were among eight men charged with racketeering and conspiracy to murder in 2003.  Indicted as "material supporters" of the "foreign terrorist organization" Palestinian Islamic Jihad, all three were praised afterward by their colleagues and described as "scholarly" and "highly respected."

The case of Hassan Diab, a Lebanese-born dual Canadian citizen and a former sociology professor at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, is less straightforward.  French authorities allege that Diab was the leader of a commando team that perpetrated the 1980 bombing of the Rue Copernic synagogue in Paris.  The bombing, which was attributed to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, killed three Frenchmen and an Israeli woman and wounded 40.

Diab was arrested in 2008 and extradited from Canada to France in 2014, where several court decisions to grant him bail have been overturned on appeal.  The investigation ended in July, but the judge's decision on whether to drop the charges or proceed to trial is pending.  Meanwhile, Diab maintains his innocence, and his supporters are asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to encourage French authorities to release him.

While every profession has its bad actors, the field of Middle East studies is riddled with them.  It suffers from the violence, radicalism, and misogyny afflicting the region from which so many of its academics hail.  Moreover, it is arrogant and self-righteous, rejecting the outside criticism that exposes its misdeeds in favor of a closed circle that affirms its worst inclinations. Condemning the democratic West while elevating Islamism, the field betrays its moral confusion.  Is it any wonder that the worst follows?    

Cinnamon Stillwell is the West Coast representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.  She can be reached at stillwell@meforum.org.

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