Last week, when the UT campus was evacuated after a bomb threat, English professor Snehal Shingavi followed the news as many of us did: on Twitter. Like thousands of students, faculty, and staff, Shingavi turned to social media for updates on the situation.
But he also did something unusual. In a tweet, he invited everyone to talk about it.
Not long after the University noted publicly that the man who called in the bomb threat had a “light Middle Eastern accent,” Shingavi issued an open invitation to attend his class on Islamophobia. “Did UT have to say ‘middle eastern accent’ as if that told anyone anything about the bomb threat?” he tweeted.
Today, about eight students took him up on that offer, joining Shingavi’s Literature of Islamophobia class for a lively discussion. Students spoke up about how they reacted to the evacuation. “No one I know took it seriously,” said one student, to nods from others. “Not one single person. There wasn’t a sense of urgency.”
Theories about why UT had released the description of the caller’s accent were varied, but students were critical of UT’s choice of words. One wondered if it was an attempt to avoid offending any particular culture, since “Middle Eastern” is such a broad term. Another wondered if UT was trying to create a sense of urgency by including the detail: “When you hear Middle Eastern, that’s something to be afraid of.”
For his part, Shingavi placed the detail in context of the class’s study of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and media coverage of recent violence in Libya prompted by an anti-Islam film. The class also discussed Newsweek’s controversial “Muslim Rage” cover, which some say demonizes Muslims.
After class, Shingavi said what he found most troubling was that UT released hardly any other information about the caller. “There was no other information, just that he had a Middle Eastern accent and said he was with Al Qaeda,” Shivani said. “A fact like that can raise the temperature. It is an easy and sensational narrative.”
Robert Dahlstrom, chief of the University Police Department, seemed to suggest UT didn’t have any other information about the caller. Dahlstrom told the Daily Texan that he was simply sharing the little he knew in advance of inevitable questions. “If we hadn’t put that out, we would be getting questions to release that information,” Dahlstrom said.
Michael Redding, president of the Graduate Student Assembly, told the Texan that after completing training for bomb threat response, he understands why the caller’s accent would be important to an investigation. “You’re trained to pick up on context clues in that kind of situation,” he said. “In light of what’s going on internationally, someone saying they are affiliated with Al Qaeda with a Middle Eastern accent may be more credible.”
In a press conference on Friday, UT President Bill Powers said he did not know why the accent was ever mentioned publicly.
Shingavi said although he had been concerned that the situation could cause Muslim students to experience bias on campus, he hasn’t heard of any incidents.
Photo by Fanny Trang/the Daily Texan.