Dean apologizes for wearing Arab garb to campus event

The Dean of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma issued a public apology last week for appearing at a back-to-school event wearing traditional Arab garb.

Charles Graham issued the apology Monday, according to The Lost Ogle, after several anonymous complaints were lodged with the president’s office concerning a picture posted on the College of Architecture’s Facebook page showing Graham addressing the meeting while dressed in a white thawb (a robe-like garment) and a red keffiyeh (headscarf).

The post, which has since been deleted but was preserved through a screenshot, displays the caption, “Dean Graham shows off his latest purchase from our service learning trip’s stopover in Dubai at our back to school meeting!”

OU press secretary Corbin Wallace confirmed to The Oklahoma Daily that the president’s office had received three or four complaints about Graham’s attire, and described the apology letter as “an appropriate step.”

In his apology, Graham acknowledged that some individuals were offended by his attire—which he claims to have purchased in Dubai, where the College has a study abroad program—but said “I had no intention of offending anyone. I apologize if I did.”

It is unclear whether the offended parties were in attendance at the event or became aware of it through the Facebook photo, but Graham’s apology is addressed specifically to “College of Architecture Faculty and Staff,” suggesting that the complaints came from within the college.

Graham also sought to explain himself in the apology, saying he had consulted with “a number of my Muslim friends … to see if my wearing the attire would be offensive in any religious way, and the answers were all resoundingly ‘no’.” Rather, he claims, the feedback he received was that doing so “would be a nice gesture of diversity and acceptance of other cultures.”

Moreover, Graham explained that his outfit was not “religious,” per se, comparing it to “what my Scottish ancestors and family who wear kilts currently do, or my relatives and friends in Texas do when they wear western hats and boots to their jobs.”

After reiterating his apologies to anyone he might have offended, Graham offers up one final defense, saying, “I also tried to use the time I wore the attire as an educational exercise, even to the point of giving the names of the various components of the attire.”

According to one attendee who spoke anonymously to The Lost Ogle, though, that aspect of Graham’s presentation may actually have been what elicited the complaints.

The tipster claims that Graham struggled to pronounce the names for his various articles of clothing, at one point asking an Iranian professor who was in the audience whether his pronunciations were correct. The discomfited professor was then compelled to explain that styles of dress are not identical throughout the Middle East, and that his Iranian background did not make him an expert on Arabian styles.

On the other hand, Graham does have at least one notable defender within the Muslim community.

“I, for one, am appalled that anyone would criticize Dean Graham for his choice of clothing, and furthermore, I am concerned that he felt it necessary to issue an apology,” said Adam Soltani, Executive Director for the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), in an op-ed for The Oklahoma Daily.

“If someone was troubled by this from a cultural appropriation standpoint, it definitely was not myself [sic] or any other Muslim that I know,” Soltani asserts, adding, “I commend Dean Graham for taking the bold step to expose his fellow Sooners to a different culture.”

Conversely, he said, “If someone was distressed by this from an Islamophobic standpoint, then I am disturbed that the state of Islamophobia in our society has reached a point that someone cannot wear Middle Eastern clothing without being negatively associated with extremists that have nothing to do with Islamic faith.”

Graham later sought to dismiss that possibility, telling The Oklahoman, “[i]t's not a religious issue by any stretch as far as I'm concerned,” and adding, “[i]t really shouldn't be turned into a religious battle.”

Wallace seemed to offer clarification, saying the anonymous complaints about Graham’s attire specifically referred to it as “culturally and ethnically insensitive,” although he did not actually say which culture and ethnicity the respondents felt Graham was being insensitive toward.

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