At a time when some are labeling the United States Islamophobic, an ongoing case at Georgia State University highlights the complex and difficult circumstances Muslim students can encounter in a post-9/11 world.
The story of a Georgia State professor who asked a graduate student if she had “bombs” under her traditional Islamic headscarf generated plenty of media buzz in the summer of 2009, but hundreds of pages of previously unreported court documents tied to the incident provide a clearer picture of how the university and involved individuals responded to what the student described as multiple acts of harassment and discrimination.
Slma Shelbayah, a former visiting instructor and doctoral student at Georgia State, filed a federal lawsuit against the university and other parties nearly a year ago. In sworn depositions provided this summer, the professor at the heart of the case attempted to explain how a regrettable “running joke” about Shelbayah’s religious garb morphed into an international firestorm over intolerance and insensitivity.
Mary Stuckey, a professor of communication and political science and graduate director of the department of communication at Georgia State, describes the first reported incident of mentioning “bombs” to Shelbayah as part of a tragic misunderstanding. Stuckey’s research interests include media rhetoric, and she suggests in her deposition that her comments to Shelbayah at an August 2008 breakfast were actually critiques of rampant stereotypes about Islam.
“So when I spoke about people who had said that women who were wearing burkas could be hiding bombs, I thought I was talking about images and ideas that people would get from stereotypes that were present in the media,” she said, according to a transcript. “She heard me apparently as speaking about something altogether different.”
But other incidents followed, according to court documents. Just a few days after their first encounter, Shelbayah said Stuckey approached her at a reception and asked, “Do you have any bombs on you today?”
Stuckey, who did not respond to telephone and e-mail inquiries Thursday, said in her deposition that she didn’t recall that encounter. In the wake of the two alleged incidents, however, court documents detail yet another encounter that is partially corroborated by another administrator who was present. At an Aug. 19, 2008 doctoral seminar, Shelbayah says she was publicly humiliated by bizarre comments attributed to Stuckey. As Shelbayah introduced herself to the class, Stuckey interjected “squirrel,” eliciting laughter from the class, according to Shelbayah. Stuckey then said, 'A squirrel with a bomb, that is,’ ” the documents say.
Stuckey said she didn’t recall the incident in class, but depositions detail discussions after class that steered back yet again to Shelbayah’s scarf, or hijab. After the class concluded, Shelbayah began talking with Carol Winkler, the associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who was conducting the seminar. Stuckey approached them, and relayed to Winkler that Shelbayah “loves humor,” before again making reference to a “bomb,” the documents state.
“This was followed by a question she asked me, 'Slma, don't you think this is funny?' I was so overwhelmed with embarrassment, shock, and confusion,” Shelbayah wrote in her account of the incident. “The only response I was able to give back was 'I really don't know.' She said, 'Really, you don't know.' I was like, 'No, I don't really know. Maybe later on I'll be able to pick up on your humor, but I am not there yet.'"
Winkler said she wasn’t getting the joke, either.
“I was stunned that a faculty member would say 'bombs under your scarf' in front of an associate dean. It seemed unusual to me. Inappropriate,” Winkler said in a sworn deposition.
Shelbayah made complaints after the seminar incident, but her saga was just beginning. Shortly after she had a meeting with Stuckey and Winkler at Winkler's behest, Shelbayah wrote in an e-mail that her relationship with Stuckey, who had apologized profusely during the meeting, was "strengthened." But subsequent events convinced Shelbayah that she and one of her chief supporters had became targets for retaliation.
As for Stuckey, the reams of documents uncovered in the legal discovery process suggest the incidents did little to diminish her standing in the eyes of administrators. While Stuckey received a formal reprimand, the document noted that “it is essential that this incident be contextualized in the long and substantively professional record you have accumulated,” according to court documents. In the same year, Stuckey’s 2008 evaluation declared her performance “outstanding,” according to the federal complaint.
Stuckey has since been dropped from the lawsuit. According to Shelbayah's attorney, James Radford, Stuckey was dismissed as a defendant because of the "qualified immunity" defense, which protects government employees from individual liability. [This information has been updated].
Retaliation Allegations Abound
Shelbayah first began to sense that she was a victim of retaliation just days after her meeting with Stuckey and Winkler. It was then that an unwritten “policy” was relayed to Shelbayah, stating that she could not pursue graduate study at Georgia State while also serving as a visiting instructor. Citing the continuing litigation, university officials would not say Thursday whether any such policy exists, but administrative depositions on the matter suggest it was a practice unarticulated in bylaws or handbooks.
It is also without dispute that the “policy” did not preclude Shelbayah from being accepted into a doctoral program in the first place, even though she listed her position as an instructor on her approved application.
Additionally, Shelbayah’s case outlines how she was retroactively removed from a position as director of a study abroad program in Egypt. In removing Shelbayah, administrators said they were uncomfortable placing a visiting instructor in such a position, even though there was at least one known precedent of that very thing happening for a study abroad trip to Turkey.
Among those to whom Shelbayah took her concerns was Dona Stewart, who resigned as director of the Middle East Institute at Georgia State in connection with Shelbayah’s case. Stewart publicly disapproved of the university's handling of the matter, and she has joined Shelbayah in the lawsuit with her own allegations of retaliation.
Over her objections, Stewart was reassigned to the department of geosciences amid the Shelbayah fallout, and she took a year of unpaid leave as the legal process got underway. But Stewart was recently denied a second year of unpaid leave, and she resigned from the faculty altogether last month in response.
“There was no indication on the part of the university leadership that they would do anything to protect me from further retaliation [if I returned],” Stewart said Thursday.
Asked about Stewart’s request for additional unpaid leave, a university spokeswoman said granting it would burden her department.
“When Dr. Stewart's leave was granted, it was with the expectation that she would return for the 2009-2010 academic year to continue as a productive member of the faculty,” Andrea Jones, a university spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail. “The university's growing student population necessitates additional faculty, so granting another year of leave to Dr. Stewart would be a burden on the department.”
Stewart cites her reassignment to geosciences, along with lagging support for a bachelor’s degree program in Middle Eastern studies, as examples of a “backlash” against her. Court documents also show that, amid the Shelbayah controversy and before Stewart resigned, Stewart’s dean was already planning to remove her as director of the Middle Eastern Studies program.
Lauren Adamson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said in a sworn deposition that she found some of Stewart’s actions “a little insubordinate.” While she didn’t cite the Shelbayah controversy as an example, Adamson noted that Stewart went outside the normal chain of command by taking her proposal for a new bachelor’s program directly to the provost. She also suggests others on campus weren’t sure about Stewart’s abilities.
“I know that there were people who were concerned about her capacity to lead the institute and the way that she would lead it forward,” Adamson said, according to a transcript.
While no formal announcement has been made, Adamson recently declared her intention to resign as dean at the end of the academic year, university officials confirmed Thursday. She stepped down of her own accord, and “the legal case had nothing to do with it and is completely unrelated,” Jones said.
Adamson did not respond to an interview request.
While the incidents outlined in the case against Georgia State date back two years, Stewart says it’s difficult to separate the allegations from recent debates about American perceptions of Muslims.
“We are now beginning to realize that we have a Muslim population that is deeply ingrained in American society, and we need to learn more about it,” said Stewart, who is not Muslim.
Ironically, Stuckey’s own vita suggests she’d be among those most eager to learn more about cultures different from her own. In addition to the study of presidential communication and rhetoric, her work centers on American Indians and other “oppressed groups,” she stated in a biographical video on her department’s website.
“In all of these things,” she said, “I’m essentially interested in power -- the people who wield it rhetorically, the institutions that transmit it, and the people who are often affected by it, sometimes in extremely negative ways.”