x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Students learn to break down national stereotypes

UN-backed programme brings together 2,500 students from 60 universities to discuss world issues via video conferences.

Students are joining their American and European counterparts in a programme designed to spark discussion, break down stereotypes and create more understanding between Muslims and westerners. Connect, a United Nations-backed programme, brings together 2,500 students from 60 universities to discuss world issues via video conferences. More than 120 students from the American University of Sharjah (AUS) and UAE University have taken part. The programme is run by Soliya, a US-based non-profit organisation.

The UAE students have engaged with a variety of nationalities on subjects such as how they perceive their identity. "How do you define your identity? Are you Muslim, Iraqi, Kurd or Sunni?" Dalia Othman was asked. "I'm Iraqi," said the AUS international studies student. The question over what took precedence, religious or national identity, was not pronounced among her American colleagues. It was an example of the different perspectives they had on certain issues.

"We realised there were many stereotypes about Arabs and about the region," she said. "They thought we were very close-minded about the US." Ms Othman was taken aback by some students' assumptions that she disliked Arabs and Shiites because she was Kurdish, or that she hated Jews and Christians. "Islam doesn't teach us to hate anyone," she said. Such preconceived notions were typical when others were thought of as strangers, said Dr Meenaz Kassam, an assistant professor of sociology at AUS, who teaches the course that includes the Connect programme. "When you think of the other as strange, it creates a gulf that allows you to stereotype the other," she said.

Anthony Tchilinguirian, an Armenian-Jordanian, said the exercise contained important lessons. "Consciously, we were learning about economics, politics, how the media affects us in different regions around the world," he said. "Subconsciously we were able to learn to be more understanding to different views. " @Email:kshaheen@thenational.ae