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Teaching 9/11 and the Global War on Terror at the Undergraduate Level

RoundTable III-1, sponsored byCommittee for Undergraduate Middle East Studies, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am

RoundTable Description
This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, promoted at that time as a reprisal for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and a vital military campaign within the broader ‘War on Terror.’ The range of historical events and transformations that fall under the sign of ‘9/11’ largely reach students today in the form of selective curricula, patriotic commemoration, and large- and small-screen iconography (from satirical memes to video games to high-budget Hollywood war zones). As event, 9/11 predate students’ conscious memory, yet in its enduring political and symbolic traction, and in the expansion of racialized surveillance under the GWOT, it also saturates their lives and their social and political conditions. 9/11 is now, to borrow historian Alison Landsberg's concept, a matter of ‘prosthetic memory’, which must be learned through mediation - the potentials of which, both repressive and liberatory, are myriad. The premise of this panel is that, as we can expect courses/modules on this topic to become more common, since entering university cohorts now consist entirely of students born after 2001, so will the need arise for pedagogical resources to support critical, contextual, non-state-directing teaching on 9/11 and the WOT in global perspective. This panel convenes educators at the post-secondary level who have recently taught or are preparing to teach undergraduate courses/modules on this topic across humanities disciplines. The aim is to share our experiences in open conversation with colleagues, and to lay the groundwork for the development of new pedagogical strategies and resources.
International Relations/Affairs
Political Science
  • Dr. Sarah Ghabrial -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Dr. Pheroze Unwalla -- Presenter
  • Shaimaa Hassan -- Presenter
  • Jay Shelat -- Presenter
  • Mariam Durrani -- Presenter
  • Dr. Sarah Ghabrial
    My contribution to this roundtable centres on the question of pedagogically responsible and effective use of primary sources in courses/modules focused on 9/11 and the GWOT. It is based on my experience teaching a first-year seminar titled ‘Global History of September 11, 2001’ with a diverse group of students all born after 2001. As a course taught in a History department, one of my teaching objectives was to use the topic to interrogate the relationship between memory, history, politics, and epistemology. On the one hand, given the prevalence of official, state-made artifacts like the 9/11 Commission Report, 9/11 is a highly-documented and ‘historicized’ event. On the other hand, a critical, global historiography of 9/11 and the GWOT is only just emerging, though growing rapidly, which opens a rare and exciting space for current undergraduate and graduate students to dismantle dominant narratives and retrieve subjugated knowledges in timely and material ways. Thus, this seminar had both deconstructive and constructive aims: The first (deconstructive) goal was to interrogate the inter-generational transmission of ‘9/11’ as part of an ambient ‘culture of commemoration,’ which was for many students, until that point, something seemingly apolitical and self-evident. The adjacent (constructive) goal was to mobilize primary sources across a range of media (textual, visual, sonic, digital, physical/museological, etc.) both in the classroom and for use in student assignments as a way of demystifying ‘9/11’ as an atemporal metaphor leveraged recursively in political discourse. Here, however, the logistical challenge arose of the sheer volume and dissipation of sources across broad swaths of digital, physical, linguistic, and archival space. This prompted methodological questions that are both old and, in this context, new: what ‘counts’ as a primary source and how are they to be read/interpreted in the midst of ‘historical’ events whose reverberations are still being lived? What constitutes the archive of the Global War on Terror? Who makes it and where is it located? For my intervention into this roundtable discussion, I hope to pick up these questions, which emerged in the classroom space, and open them to colleagues and students. In turn, it is hoped that this RT may lay the groundwork for a digital-humanities resource to house, catalogue, and make accessible primary sources related to 9/11 and the GWOT – a project that is equal-parts archival, historiographic, and pedagogical – to support the critical inquiries of both students and educators at the undergraduate level.
  • Dr. Pheroze Unwalla
    In this presentation, I relay pedagogical approaches and strategies from a first year History course titled The Global War on Terror: A History. With emphasis on the course’s positionality and (historical) empathy interventions and assignments, I argue that students should be instructed to broach the history of the GWOT – conceived as commencing long before 9/11 and ongoing – as personal and lived on two interconnected levels. First, the course pushes students through assignments and in-class interventions to assess their positionality, continually scrutinizing how their lives, feelings, and mindsets have been shaped by the GWOT. More than garnering a better understanding of the self and fostering deeper engagement with the subject matter, the exercises serve as a launch point to a second, arguably more significant, intervention: investigations on the positionality of ‘others,’ both in the classroom and beyond, based on engagement with concepts like (historical) empathy. In other words, students are pushed to question and explore how and what it means to empathize, historically and more generally, with classmates with diverse life experiences as well as historical and contemporary actors whose actions might be considered aberrant, if not horrifying, depending on our positionalities. The aim is to understand the varied meanings and impacts of the GWOT and associated terminology as well as why diverse actors, at turns, think what they think, say what they say, and do what they do. In this vein, the emphasis on historical empathy aims also to trouble students’ conceptions of History as a discipline and the GWOT’s problematic fields of study, provoking the student-as-historian to grapple with the difficulties of attempting to honestly and ethically historicize and thus humanize figures such as Osama bin Laden and Dick Cheney, the ‘jihadi’ and soldier, the victim/survivor and their torturer/oppressor. Blurred lines between understanding and justifying, evidenced analysis and personal prejudice, trouble students’ sense of self and scholarship in addition to the place of moral judgment in our work. In sum, I argue that student engagement with positionality, historical empathy, and general empathy productively complicates their understanding of the GWOT in addition to History as a discipline. Finally, I believe the interventions have a positive impact on students’ belief in themselves as historical and political agents, both shaped by and capable of shaping the GWOT.
  • Jay Shelat
    How do you teach the post-9/11 generation about the inaugural events of the 21st century? How do you frame imperial warfare to a generation for whom hyper-security is the norm? These questions emerge as central to the 9/11 and the Global War on Terror (GWOT) classroom, and navigating these questions relies on a professor’s conscientious efforts to center history, race, and colonialism—themes that seem to be the antithesis of the pervasive narrative that 9/11 and the War on Terror came “out of the blue.” This paper examines how courses about 9/11 and/or the Global War on Terror afford the opportunity to cultivate a learning environment that in turn unmakes popular narratives of white victimhood. That is, I argue that to responsibly teach these events and their complex geopolitical and sociocultural ramifications, scholar-teachers must approach 9/11 and the GWOT by decentering whiteness from the classroom and from the texts they teach. Doing so, at the most basic level, centers the voices and narratives of the victims. But perhaps more importantly, doing so illuminates to students the ways in which the racist post-9/11 backlash has a hand in shaping social, political, cultural, and infrastructural systems of power. Recognizing that imbalance in power is part of a pedagogical process that transforms the 9/11 and GWOT classroom into a site of fostering equitable social justice. I specifically discuss the multi-modal assignments and diverse readings I require in two literature courses at a primarily white institution: 9/11 and the Novel (for upper-level English majors) and Global War on Terror Literature (for first- and second-year students). While these assignments and readings encourage students to think beyond the confines of popular narratives and to sympathize with nonwhite victims, they also compel students to interrogate from where and how whitewashed narratives emerge. In other words, I claim that when students study literary tenets such as character, place, or conflict in texts by and about nonwhite people and practice rigorous analytical work through multi-modal assignments, they consequently recognize and question the fractious relationship between contemporary political and cultural landscapes.
  • Mariam Durrani
    My presentation draws on auto-ethnographic reflections to explore how maintaining ongoing public engagements inside and outside of the academy are critical to the teaching of the Global Wars on Terror to college students. I begin by discussing my research about imperial racialization in the US and Pakistan through a multi-sited ethnography with college students in Lahore and NYC. This work seeks to denaturalize national and cultural borders of perceived difference to facilitate a racial capitalist analysis of educational imperialism, where access and mobility depend on variegated performances of the “good Muslim”/liberal student-subject in both the US and Pakistan. In the second half, I juxtapose this analysis with my lived experience of public and academic engagements around teaching about the Wars, Islamophobia, and anti-Muslim racisms, alongside dealing with targeted digital harassment as a tenure-track professor at a SLAC in upstate New York. Rather than normalizing the view that separates public-facing scholarship from traditional modes of academia, I use these reflections and analysis to conceptualize a decolonial feminist pedagogy that upends colonial distinctions and disciplines by centering our responsibility as scholars and as teachers teaching about the Global War on Terror more than twenty years after it began.
  • Shaimaa Hassan
    In this presentation, I combine critical theoretical thoughts and auto-ethnographical reflections to discuss my teaching of Conflict, Intervention and Development to final-year university students in London. I begin by discussing my research, which focuses on the evolution of insurgency and counterinsurgency in the Sinai Peninsula in the past decade. The research seeks to connect this issue to the global political and historical context and the global war on terror, drawing on individual lived experiences and responses to both state securitisation and militant groups in Egypt post-2013. It constructs the notion of terrorism and how it has been used in the Egyptian context to expose the exceptionalism of state violence and the role of securitisation in re-establishing an authoritarian regime. On another note, my personal experience of living in Egypt under a permanent state of emergency where the 'exceptional' became the 'norm' has shaped my understanding of how authoritarianism and human rights abuses in the Egyptian war on terror, which had started long before 9/11, has become more justifiable under the GWOT paradigm. My work with Amnesty International UK to teach and train student groups across London Universities to support human rights, mainly campaigning for women human rights defenders. I combine research findings and personal experience to engage students to critically explore contemporary conceptual debates on security and different forms of intervention - particularly emergency aid and military intervention, that characterise the so-called New World Order. In class and at seminars, we discuss the shift from the state to human security, securitisation theory and the securitisation of refugees, migration and Islam, contemporary challenges post 9/11 in the military, societal, environmental, current economic crisis, and critical issues associated with humanitarianism, migration and terrorism.