On 19 September 2019, the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos ordered the UNC-Duke Middle East Studies program to remake itself according to the DoEd’s mandate for Title VI funds. Later in the day, after the Department (DoEd) made the official announcement, Secretary DeVos stated on record that Duke and UNC were portraying Islam too positively, and that the consortium would have to reverse course if it was to continue receiving federal funding from Title VI.

Taken together, these statements clearly indicate that neither Secretary DeVos nor the DoEd are expressing genuine concerns about the topics of oppression or fairness, nor do they address the quality education. Instead, this is an order to maintain the status quo and to retain power by invoking the unaccountable specter of “national security”. In fact, the United States engineers forms of oppression beneficial to itself, including the 2017 Muslim Ban and the continual provision of military support to regional powers such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, who have used that support to commit war crimes. This Title VI notice can, therefore, be viewed as an additional method by which the United States is attempting to hegemonically frame the Middle East as a site of domination and exploitation, and Islam as a convenient scapegoat for the expansion of “national security”, now through academia.

This is the first time in a decade that the state has intervened to make an academic department more amenable to its politics. Title VI extortions in the mid-2000s attempted to force Middle East Studies programs to churn out tools for the state through programs that focused on linguistic skills, security frameworks, and hostility to the Middle East and Muslims during the War on Iraq. These jingoistic, white supremacist currents are even stronger today, emboldening the Trump administration to crack down on freedom of speech, and our commitment to complex, nuanced educational programming.

On 25 September 2019, UNC issued an official response to the DoEd by providing a clinical assessment of its standing as compliant with Title VI. While we as graduate students at UNC endorse this statement, we would like to speak to the underlying premise of the notice—that UNC-Duke is violating the edicts of “national security” upon which Title VI is predicated. So, as students of Islamicate studies and Middle East studies, we address the main accusations, both stated and unstated, in this order.

Accusation 1. Middle East programs privilege Muslims over analysis of Jews, Christians, Kurds, Baha’i, and other minority groups in the Middle East.

In response to the first premise, it is incumbent to recognize that Muslims of various sects and beliefs and practices, including people who are not practicing Muslims at all, comprised ninety-three percent of the demographic population of the Middle East and North Africa as of 2010. This number is projected to rise continually in this century. As a result, the relatively higher attention provided to Islam-related subjects within the region makes proportionate sense. It is also important to reflect that, in contention with Secretary DeVos’ statement that Islam is viewed too “positively” in the UNC-Duke consortium, we contest the necessity to locate the region primarily through a “national security” lens that demonizes its living, human inhabitants. Critical study of Islam and Muslims is neither an uncritical celebration nor condemnation of either subject: rather, it is purely a pursuit of knowledge. Second, we assert the necessity to acknowledge the precipitators for conflict, which in this case (amongst other factors), is the violent fracture of colonialism and the ongoing hegemony of imperialist military powers. Who does it protect to view Muslims solely through the lens of national security, particularly given they are integral members of US society? What does it privilege?

However, all Middle East Studies programs devote resources to the study of religious minorities as well, and UNC and Duke alike have often offered courses on religious and ethnic minorities and of non-Islamic historical content involving the region.

Furthermore, our courses are dedicated to exploring diversity within Muslim communities. Islam is not a monolith. At a graduate student conference last year funded in part by the consortium, multiple panelists spoke about minority communities struggling in Sunni-Muslim majority contexts, including Shia Muslims and Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan.

Accusation 2. UNC-Duke does not place enough emphasis on Middle East/North African language courses.

In terms of Middle Eastern/North African language classes: Hebrew is offered to the 600 level, Arabic to the 600 level, Persian to the 300 level, and Hindi-Urdu to the 400 level. All of these meet the Title VI requirement that the university receiving funds offers at least three semesters of a language. The UNC-Duke official response further break down these numbers in terms of how many students were enrolled in each language course during the 2017-2018 academic year.

Accusation 3. UNC-Duke use Title VI funds for classes and events not relevant to Title VI.

In response to this point, it would be helpful to include a passage directly from the federal notice.

Although a conference focused on “Love and Desire in Modern Iran” and one focused on Middle East film criticism may be relevant in academia, we do not see how these activities support the development of foreign language and international expertise for the benefit of U.S. national security and economic stability.

The entire DoEd notice is rife with this sort of language, and it performs two functions. First, it obscures the truly little amounts that are generally used in hosting these events and for designing and offering these classes. For instance, the UNC-Duke Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies spent only two hundred dollars in federal funds on last year’s Annual Conference. This represents a very small minority of funds needed to host these crucial pedagogical events.

Second, this paragraph baldly evinces what the DoEd is intending to do with all students who study the Middle East/North Africa, the religion of Islam, and Muslim-majority communities by constantly invoking the term “national security”: funnel them into the security apparatus and the military-industrial complex. The state is not a body of teachers, and it is not capable of deciding what is and is not important to learn about either the region or the religion of Islam. This is why the federal government is not itself a university and why Ph.D. students devote the better part of a decade in learning how to become professors.

Additionally, the premise that federal funds are entirely predicated on a very narrow definition of “being of use to national security” eliminates essentially all courses outside of military science and the most basic and uncritical classes in the disciplines of history, religion, political science, and perhaps anthropology and sociology. Furthermore, the DoEd’s claims that a conference on “Love and Desire in Modern Iran” is not relevant and that the center is overly fixated with “positive aspects of Islam” are a direct reflection of the Trump’s administration’s anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ stances.

Accusation 4. University Middle East Studies programs are unfairly critical of Israel.

Finally, regarding the final point: are Middle East studies programs unfairly or even discriminatorily anti-Israel?

To address this issue, it is necessary to explain the basis for the DoEd’s initial investigation into the Middle East Studies Consortium. In March 2019, the Duke-UNC Consortium hosted a conference entitled “Conflict over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities.” Although the federal notice issued on 17 September 2019 did not mention this event, it is the direct antecedent to this episode of the state’s crackdown on Duke-UNC. As is evident from the agenda hosted on the event’s website, a number of speakers were invited to speak on the issue, including medical professionals, law professionals, advocacy professionals, and many others. The conference presented a variety of options by which the dire situation in Gaza could, by some parameters, be alleviated. It barely even invited a discussion of how to eliminate the brutal occupation that continues to murder Palestinians on a weekly, and frequently daily, basis.

This, among many other deeply problematic issues, is why we must resist equating religions to the actions of states: state ideologies are repressive and controlling by nature and will always be a cause for critique. Religions, on the other hand, are living and lived expressions and must be divorced from the state’s apparatuses.

The very subject of the conference was a target of aggression from the outset, immediately attracting the attention of groups who are hostile to any academic pursuit which attempts to discuss the occupation and the idea of Palestinian self-determination. The questions asked during many of the Palestinian speakers’ presentations alluded to that premise, given the disproportionate attention a few attendees afforded to Hamas and its violence. Yet the conference organizers, having a genuine belief in the power of connection and dialogue, invited individuals from many communities—Israeli, Palestinian, and American alike—to offer their views about the state of Gaza.

This is the first program to be hit with a gag order by the US government, but it likely will not be the last. Instead, this gag order hopes to stimulate a programmatic shift in the way all Middle East studies programs who utilize Title VI funds teach about the Middle East and Islam. Yet the government cannot end universities’ trajectory toward honest, complex pedagogy in these fields.

As graduate students involved in the Duke-UNC Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies, we will not kowtow to the state—this state or any other. Our first preoccupation is critical thinking and academic freedom, which is integrally linked to the pursuit of justice. We reject the premise of this gag order and its underlying intentions. We stand against all forms of discrimination—racial, religious, gender, sexuality, class, age, ability, and otherwise—in particular as a result of state vision and rhetoric. We will not support imperialism, jingoism, and military hegemony, and we do not support the idea that these are necessary for maintaining peace in any nation, including the US.

[This is a response from concerned graduate students at UNC. It is not connected to any official response by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies, or any associated universities in the consortium. It is not endorsed by any official party, nor does it speak for other students connected to the Middle East and Islamic Studies Consortium.]