Illustration by Leehyun Choi

Islamophobia and Study Abroad

Adhering to a particular belief system can make traveling a hazardous experience, what is the value of a global education that excludes certain students?

Sep 25, 2016

Undoubtedly, one of the most enticing prospects of an NYU Abu Dhabi education is the virtually unparalleled study abroad package, including January Terms, class trips and semesters away. Although everyone is eligible to apply for study abroad opportunities, not everyone can easily avail themselves of it. When adhering to a particular belief system or belonging to a specific ethnicity can make traveling a potentially hazardous experience, what is the value of a global education that excludes certain students from its ambit?
The imported so-called global culture that is glorified on campus can quickly become a safety blanket that lulls you into a false sense of security. It is easy to believe that the world is your oyster when your place of education is a Noah’s Arc of mostly harmonious intercultural contact situated on Happiness Island. But when study abroad applications coincided with the beginning of Donald Trump’s journey as a messiah as well as a spate of so-called Islamist attacks around the world, I began to worry. My study abroad considerations expanded to include not only classes offered and the potential workload, but also the chances of getting mugged on the streets for covering my hair with a piece of fabric that has apparently been proven to be the insignia of all contemporary terrorists.
The chance to spend a semester in one of NYU’s global sites is both exhilarating and terrifying. The opportunity to discover countless places under the guise of learning is undeniably incredible. However, that does not stop fear from inducing doubt. I am scared by the prospect of experiencing discrimination due to my religion, skin color or nationality. Individuals on campus I have confided in advise me not to worry prematurely about what others might think or do. Additionally, in keeping with the tone of many a self-help book, I have been told not to let my doubts hold me back from exploring what the world has to offer. But talking about overcoming anxiety and experiencing its crippling effects are two different things.
In the past year, we have witnessed an unprecedented rise in tension around the world. People suspected of eating beef have been attacked in India and the burkini ban in France has engendered global debate about feminism, national security and modernity. So now, suspicion festers, and explicit lines of division are being formed. We live in a globalized world where intercultural contact and migration have never been easier. Ironically, we also live in a world where unity becomes more illusory with the passage of time. We are not a big, harmonious, multi-ethnic family. Far from it, we are distinct communities with unequivocal delineations and boundaries that dare not be overstepped. In the face of such a murky sociopolitical climate, romantic ideas of exploration, discovery and broadening intellectual horizons can take a backseat to pragmatic concerns regarding safety. So the question remains: Do I stay moored in Abu Dhabi for the remaining three years, or do I risk the uncertainty and venture forth? Presumably, the vast majority of the world’s population is comprised of people open to reason. They are decidedly not toupee-wearing misogynists whose surnames rhyme with dump. Regardless of where you go, there will be issues of safety and ethics that you may be forced to confront. You may tackle problems of injustice and privilege. You will witness a world crumble around you, but you have to be brave enough to see beauty in the fissures.
There is thus more to studying abroad than meets the eye. There are difficult questions regarding safety, visibility and assimilation that need to be addressed. While orientation and pre-departure sessions are conducted, there still exists a need for a more comprehensive platform where students’ concerns can be discussed. It is incumbent upon us to tackle these issues, or else the dream of a pleasant global education experience could remain just that for a select minority: a dream.
Safa Salim is a contributing writer. Email her at
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