This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Promoting East-West relations

UB dental school faculty member Othman Shibly works to increase dialogue

Published: September 23, 2004

Reporter Contributor

Life changed three years ago for Othman Shibly.

As an Arab-American born in Syria, he always had faced some prejudice. But with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that prejudice intensified, with many Americans expressing a bristling, sometimes uncomfortable dislike of anyone Muslim


Othman Shibly, a UB dental school faculty member, is attempting to counter prejudice by actively working to promote dialogue between Eastern and Western cultures.

Shibly, an assistant professor and senior resident associate in the Department of Periodontics and Endodontics in the School of Dental Medicine, cites several personal examples of this prejudice. A patient in the dental school clinic refused to be treated by one of Shibly's students, a Middle Eastern resident. The patient was told to go elsewhere because UB does not discriminate or accommodate those sorts of requests.

Moreover, someone asked his own assistant—a coworker and good friend—how she could trust Shibly.

Shibly also worries about his 14-year-old daughter displaying her religion by wearing a headscarf to school.

But he has attempted to counter this prejudice by actively working to promote dialogue between Eastern and Western cultures.

He says he loves being an American and feels a moral responsibility to promote understanding of Muslims in this community and other areas. A calm and humble, yet feverish peacemaker through soft dialogue, he is in high demand as a lecturer, both on campus and in the larger Western New York community. His lecture for the "UB This Summer" series, "Promoting Dialogue Between the East and West," was the best-attended lecture of the series, organizers say.

Shibly is sought after as a lecturer internationally as well. He will travel to the Middle East in the coming months, speaking at the American University in Beirut and also to the United Nations Development Program in Syria. He says those lectures will include reflections on many of the points raised in the UB lecture, while also touching on the topic of reform in these countries and explaining the importance of bridging Arab and Western cultures.

Although Shibly works as a successful periodontist, he finds Islamic education and research work to be an equally important part of his life, and holds board positions with the Network of Religious Communities of Western New York and the Islamic Society of the Niagara Frontier.

"We have to be honest with ourselves," Shibly said during a recent interview with the Reporter. "We cannot deny the conflict between the East and the West," he said, noting that the "West" "really now is just the U.S.A."

Shibly emphasized there are similarities between the two cultures, including a focus on common values.

"Everyone likes peace," Shibly said. "No matter where you are from, everyone wants to help the needy. These are common human values. We have to (look into) our hearts, values and spirituality."

Through his research, Shibly has found that differences on Eastern education exist even within the academic world. There are scientists and scholars, he said, whose approach to Middle Eastern studies either is to "promote cultural confrontation or promote cultural compatibility."

Moreover, there are some academics who have pressured Congress since 9/11 to cut funding for Middle Eastern Studies programs, particularly if the programs criticize America's foreign policy in the Middle East. Fortunately many schools have resisted, citing academic freedom, Shibly noted.

His research also has found that while Americans do not trust Middle Easterners as people, Middle Easterners trust Americans as people, but do not trust U.S. foreign policy. Shibly said this is because Middle Easterners' personal prejudice of Americans is overcome by the fact that they have been students or immigrants to America and have had the opportunity to get to know the people and the country. Americans do not readily meet or live in the Middle East, he added.

Shibly also pointed out the ignorance of the media when covering hate crimes against Muslims, the "War on Terror" and the misinterpretations of Islam in general.

"Two Muslim girls were recently chased with a car downtown," Shibly said, mentioning an incident that happened earlier this summer in Buffalo. "There was no press acknowledgement of a hate crime," he said.

"Also, people have to realize that hurting the innocent is unacceptable in Islam. Historically, Islam has offered the best model of religious coexistence," he explained. "It showcases universal citizenship, but now the problem ensues with extremists. Disagreeing with foreign policy is no excuse to bomb people. If religion brings hate toward other humans, we must go away from it, but it doesn't work when we don't understand each other's faiths. The extremists maul religions."

Shibly does not consider any particular ethnic group as being more innocent than another, and said that when an American or Jewish or Muslim person perishes, one should "feel sadness equally in your heart," no matter whom the victim is.

"I feel sad and cry sometimes because American soldiers or innocent Iraqis die," Shibly said.

He believes that the media and the academy have more work to do in promoting East-West relations.

"We need to establish research toward Middle Eastern studies, centers for peace studies and conflict resolution," he said. "UB has to start to make centers on ethical and historical research perspectives. In addition to the research of virus invasion in the body, what about the research of the invasion of hate in the heart?"

But Shibly remains positive, deeply rooted in his belief that dialogue calms conflict. And despite the hardships, his love for America has not diminished.

"As Americans, we must keep our values to hold up individualism," Shibly said. "The heart of America, the beauty is (respecting) individuality.

"Let's unite our hands and hearts to work together to build a better country and world because we do not live for solely ourselves—we live for our children and grandchildren."