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Professor Hamid Shirvani FRSA offers a frank account of the shift in attitude he has witnessed while working and living in the United States.

I immigrated to the United States 43 years ago from London where I grew up and was educated, including in the Catholic faith. As a Persian, I initially felt more welcomed and accepted in the US than in Europe. Now, four decades later, I feel like E.T. This is due to a radical shift that I have seen in the attitudes of many Americans.

I have spent the last 38 years working in higher education, having climbed up the academic ranks, and served as President and Chancellor of several American universities. Most of my interactions with students, faculty and other academic stakeholders have been positive and productive; however, in recent years, I have witnessed a shift towards what can only be called bigotry.

Over the last six years, I have held university leadership positions in two “Trump country” states, North Dakota and Iowa where, for the first time, I experienced both the hypocrisy and frank bigotry that result from ignorance and fanaticism. 

In North Dakota, I was derisively referred to as “Shah” and “Mullah”, even by members of the legislature. In Iowa, I was referred to as an Arab and challenged as to how a person from the Middle East could, in fact, be a Catholic?  In both places I experienced other ad hominem attacks and received blatantly racist anonymous notes. I was not alone in being treated as “other”.

The irony is that the people in these states and in the Midwest in general, typically come across as pleasant and friendly. Unfortunately, this veneer of niceness seems to mask underlying bigoted attitudes. North Dakotans recognise this fact, referring to this social veneer as “North Dakota Nice.”

Iowans similarly admit to being cautious about being too straightforward or expressing differences of opinion in social and business contexts. In such environments, newcomers pressing for change can be blocked by claims of “not understanding the culture”, or not being “the right fit”, with the underlying issue of bigotry persisting unchallenged.

I believe that, until recently, such latent bigotry has persisted in several aspects of American culture, affecting our politics, economy, public health and education. I also believe that the Trump presidency has, in effect, legitimated the expression of this bigotry under the rubric of nativism. This was seen most recently during a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. 

Heidi Beirich, who monitors hate groups for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) also explained that the number of anti-Muslim organisations had tripled to more than 100 between 2015 and 2016, and that a further increase was expected for 2017.

It appears that many Caucasians are uncomfortable with the prospect of their becoming a minority in our pluralistic society. Further studies by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) also showed an increasing number in extremist groups and white supremacist movements in the U.S since the election of Trump.   

Bigotry is a product of parochialism and a weak educational system that consistently fails to address these issues in a forthright way. It is grist for the power mills of unenlightened leaders. It is a virus infecting the body politic. 

As a naturalized citizen, I know America to be a great country. But I see its greatness threatened - not so much by foreign adversaries as by the hypocrisy and the bigotry latent in many corners of our society and systems of governance. This underlying bigotry is further illustrated in an analysis of the results of the American National Election Studies pre- and post-election survey which showed that it wasn’t economic anxiety or uncertainty that influenced voters but a shift in racial attitudes towards minorities. 

Keeping America great demands that we address this with a more comprehensive system of education, faith and inspired moral leadership.

 

Professor Hamid Shirvani FRSA, is an academic leader and scholar who served as President and Chancellor of several universities in the United States.

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