July 19 2019

White Supremacy and the Humanities: A Challenge to the University

by Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, Pamela Klassen, and Steven M. Wasserstrom

a long, curved shelf of a library

There are lives at stake in how we teach about cultures. And our jobs are getting harder.

On March 15, an armed white nationalist went into mosques in Aoteoroa New Zealand as congregational prayers began, and he killed as many people as he could. In his manifesto, the gunman explained that he killed these people because they looked to him like “invaders.” To be clear, on the evidence of his extensive “manifesto,” this murderer did not kill because he hated Islam. His concerns, as he described them at nauseating length, were with borders, territory, and the migration of peoples. He killed because he understood the modern world with a relentless Eurocentrism: white people should be at the center no matter where one stands on the globe. Let this soak in.

The killer himself is an immigrant: an Australian in Christchurch, on Maori land. More specifically, he is a migrant on the customary land of the Ngāi Tahu which remains bound by the Treaty of Waitangi even today. He targeted Muslims at prayer because he saw the mosque as an identifiable mark of outsiders threatening the perpetuation of a nation of white people of European background. A simplistic, ignorant story with deadly results and recent parallels: a mosque in Quebec City, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, a church in Charleston.

We are religious studies professors who teach at a famously liberal college in the United States and what is likely the most multicultural university in Canada. Our students and colleagues are smart, well-read, and ambitious. We teach courses that introduce students to the humanities and to the study of religion as a human phenomenon at work in the world.

We teach our students how geographical borders, religious identities, and the idea of civilizations are realized through stories that draw their authority from histories often steeped in divine power. Take the Americas for example: whole continents already inhabited by diverse Indigenous peoples with their own laws and stories, but “discovered” and claimed by Christians on a divine mission to find new routes around Muslim territories to reach the Holy Land and the Indian Ocean.

That’s what religious studies scholars do: encourage critical thinking about how religious and political narratives prompt people to see connections with some people and not others, and to feel attached (or not) to the lands on which they live.

An observer might reasonably conclude that we should be ideally situated to do just that. And yet. Undergraduate humanities curricula—including the common “world religions” introductory course—often tell another story as they divide the humanities up by civilizations and their “great works.” Such curricula often reinforce the idea of a global and timeless reality of different cultures operating in isolation while implicitly centering the overarching story on Western Europe and Christianity as the main exempla of which culture and religion counts. Teaching our students about cultures or religions as discrete units, without enough attention to the messiness of interactions among them, fosters the ability of some people—including political leaders and white extremists—to make others appear to be out of place as “outsiders” in an otherwise idealized world free of cultural entanglements.

Our point is this: however much we condemn Eurocentrism, we cannot escape its racist legacy without telling more complicated stories about how all peoples have moved around the world in search of prosperity or freedom or some other desire, enabled or coerced by varying degrees of mobility or enslavement. Historically, for example, Muslim societies and states connected people and cultures across Asia, Europe, and Africa politically, culturally and economically. But when Europeans colonized the Americas and Oceania, vastly expanding the scope of what they called “Western” civilization, they severed whatever connected them to the Muslim histories that, in fact, had long entangled Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The students we teach have lived nearly their entire lives in an era when the United States and its allies have been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those wars have shaped how students imagine Islam and Muslims, not only abroad but also at home. They have not only shaped what foreign policies students might imagine but also how they think about multiculturalism and policing at home. For our Muslim students, the fears they have about belonging safely on the streets of our cities and towns are real.

For the foreseeable future, the United States and its allies will sustain large armies fighting amidst millions of Muslims, about whose lives our countries understand precious little. After the man with the guns broadcast his simplistic story of hate and “ethnic autonomy” to the far corners of the virtual world, he massacred fifty innocents and injured many more. In the aftermath of this tragic event, we condemn the gunman’s deeds and his simplistic story. But we worry that the current construction of the humanities at our universities (indirectly and innocently) converges with a deadly reality. If the humanities do not tend to the complex stories of how difference emerges within a context of complex cultural entanglements, little in the education of our students will prepare them to think through the legacies of hate and war towards a more liberatory future.

None of us, no matter where we live or who we are, can innocently assume that we live on a different planet from the nightmare world of the gunman and his white nationalist story. But ours is a whole earth. We worry that a construction of the humanities that does not teach students to look to cultural differences in terms of their complex, reality-based relations, weakens the prospects of a peace that would include all of us. In this sense it makes our job as religionists and humanists that much harder.


Kambiz GhaneaBassiri is professor of religion and humanities at Reed College and the author of A History of Islam in America: From the New World to the New World Order (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Pamela Klassen is professor of the study of religion and vice-dean, Undergraduate & International at University of Toronto. She is also the author of The Story of Radio Mind: A Missionary’s Journey on Indigenous Land (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

Steven M. Wasserstrom is The Moe and Izetta Tonkon Professor of Judaic Studies and the Humanities at Reed College and author of Between Muslim and Jew: The Problem of Symbiosis under Early Islam (Princeton University Press, 1995).