Muslim student said she felt ‘burdened and invalidated’ in UC Berkeley religions course

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On UC Berkeley  sophomore Sabreen Abdelrahman’s first day in her Abrahamic Religions course, the professor — Manuel Duarte de Oliveira — asked her if she could “take criticism” after introducing herself.

Abdelrahman, the only Muslim student in that class, said Oliveira did not ask any of the other students a similar question. Since that first day, Abdelrahman said she felt increasingly “burdened and invalidated,” during the course, which she took in the spring semester of 2018.

“I would really be dreading going to class because I never knew what he was going to ask,” Abdelrahman said.

Oliveira said he was shocked and surprised upon learning of Abdelrahman’s complaints, which she made public in a Facebook post Sept. 6. She alleged that Oliveira placed a “burden of representation” onto her, assigned biased and inaccurate readings about Islam and invalidated concerns that she raised about said readings. Oliveira, however, said her post was “dramatic and unfair.”

“It was a blessing, in fact an honor, to have her in the class because this type of seminar … is supposed to encourage dialogue between incoming students,” Oliveira said. “When we study at the university level, we are supposed to approach the views from a critical (lens) — even the views that criticize our own view, we need to see if it’s reasonable, if it’s fair.”

Abdelrahman said Oliveira would not only pose insensitive questions during discussion — including whether or not Islam is a “legitimate” religion since it came chronologically after Judaism and Christianity — but that he would also select biased, and in some cases inaccurate, readings about Islam.

Oliveira admitted to the class that he does not know much about Islam compared to the other Abrahamic religions, considering that he had only studied Islam for about two years and had studied Judaism and Christianity for more than 10, according to Abdelrahman. When Oliveira began teaching the Islamic unit, he allegedly told Abdelrahman that she would have to help him instruct the class.

“I appreciated that he was trying to get the perspective from someone of that religion,” Abdelrahman said. “But it got to a point where I felt like I was the one who was teaching, not sharing my experience. It was really a burden of representation of 1.8 billion people.

None of the readings Oliveira assigned were written by Muslim scholars, Abdelrahman said. In many cases, the class was reading articles or watching lectures about Islam written and given by Jewish scholars, she added. Oliveira said he would have been able to cover a “larger spectrum of views” if he had more time.

Abdelrahman did not want to report Oliveira for fear that it would affect her grade in the class, but on Aug. 31, she met with Deanna Kiser-Go, an adviser in the campus department of Near Eastern studies, to report her experiences. On Monday, she met with the department’s chair, Francesca Rochberg. She said Rochberg was very supportive and apologetic and made it clear that Oliveira’s alleged demeanor is something not tolerated by the department.

“My sympathies are with Sabreen, as I’ve already told her,” Rochberg said in an email. “I understand that the situation is quite complex.”

Oliveira had a temporary teaching contract with the campus, which has since ended, according to Rochberg. He is no longer affiliated with the department or the campus, Rochberg added in an email.

“These kind of things do happen at Berkeley,” Abdelrahman said. “I know a lot of people are surprised by that — I was too.”

Anjali Shrivastava is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anjalii_shrivas.