12 April 2004

Interest in Middle Eastern Studies Grows in U.S.

Scholars advocate interdisciplinary approach

By Chris Thornton
Washington File Special Correspondent

Boston -- A visit to almost any college bookstore reveals countless titles indicating the scope of the spotlight directed at the Middle East. In the religion section, the word Islam appears with the frequency of a prayer chant. Any textbook on international relations not devoting extensive discussion to Middle East politics has turned a blind eye to one of the most volatile regions of the world. Courses exploring the art, literature and music from Morocco to Iran have rising enrollments. The study of Arabic now rivals that of European languages.

It was not always this way. From the 1950s through the 1970s, study of the Middle East was obscured by the attention given to the Soviet Union, according to Augustus Richard Norton, professor of international relations and anthropology at Boston University. Even through the rise of Arab nationalism, the Middle East was seen primarily through the prism of cold war competition, of interest in its own right to anthropologists and archaeologists but few others. Knowledge was gained about countries researchers had access to -- Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Libya -- and was therefore aimed at uncovering the past, while assessment of present social and political conditions was limited to a cold war framework. Through the 1960s and 1970s, the pace of development also was misjudged: "Scholars viewed these societies as transitional and presumed that they would move along a path of increasing modernity."

The turning point came in 1978-79, years of the Iranian revolution -- the event that thrust the Islamic world onto the headlines and, by extension, into the classroom. Until then, most Middle Eastern scholars were working under a false assumption: "They didn't believe that religion shaped people's political involvement," says Norton. "Until the fall of the shah, the possibility that Muslims would act self-consciously as Muslims was viewed with skepticism, by scholars as well as diplomats."

Today, academic departments throughout higher education are being reshaped, with new programs developed to address adequately this area of interest. For the past 25 years, the link between religion and politics has occupied a large place in Middle Eastern studies, but this also has created a class of "instant experts," according to Denis Sullivan, chair of the international studies department at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts.

In 2003, Sullivan began taking Bentley students to Egypt on a 10-day journey to experience intersecting layers of Middle Eastern art, politics, religion, and contemporary culture. It is an intensive survey course and globetrotting field trip, intended to take students beyond the abstract concepts encountered in textbooks and introduce them to the present realities of the Middle East. Full-day schedules are filled with visits to the historical landmarks of Alexandria and the mosques and neighborhoods of Cairo, the Arab League, the World Bank, the Fulbright Commission, and nongovernmental organizations. Students attend lectures by prominent economists and scholars, business leaders, diplomats, and political figures. Hands-on learning also is worked into the curriculum. On one trip, Sullivan organized while on the faculty of Northeastern University, students volunteered to work for a day at a Coptic orphanage.

The program's impact is proof of its value. "Students come back transformed," Sullivan said. "A veil is lifted off their eyes. They see Egyptians as human beings and realize how little we Americans know about the world around us."

The trip also can be career-altering: One participant pursuing a degree in accounting returned to Boston to rethink her major. She now is planning graduate studies in international finance.

For students who remain in the classroom, the Middle East is explored through cross-disciplinary programs like the one developed at Boston College. In 2002, with the aid of federal funding, a neglected patchwork of courses was turned into a cohesive minor in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. Its offerings, drawn from cultural psychology, theology, literature, and Islamic art and architecture, have been woven together to present students with what director Kathleen Bailey-Carlisle calls "an integrated concept of the region."

She believes that given the trend of globalization, an interdisciplinary approach to education is almost essential and has yet to reach its full potential. In the 21st century, it should encompass Middle Eastern economic thought, comparative religious studies, and include anthropology and literature. The pigeonhole approach to learning, where disciplines and cultures are studied in isolation, leaves students with a short-sighted world view. Despite visible progress in course design, Bailey-Carlisle notes shortcomings persist: "The Islamic era is not even included in many courses on Spanish history. Students cannot fully understand the Renaissance without learning about the cultural influences that were brought to Italy along the Silk Road."

Philip Khoury, dean of humanities, arts and social sciences and professor of history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sees greater community organization of Arab Americans contributing to expanding American's perceptions of the Middle East. The creation of a national center for Arab-American studies would enable Arab Americans to define themselves within their society rather than respond to an image drawn for them.

With America's growing interest in the Middle East, knowledge also is being disseminated beyond the classroom. In 2002, the Centers for Middle Eastern Studies, located at universities across the United States, received a boost in federal funding to expand their outreach programs as a result of the previous year's terrorist attacks. The outreach centers maintain a repository of information related to any aspect of Middle Eastern life, historical and contemporary, with each center tailoring its activities to the character and needs of its community. As part of its "portfolio," the outreach program at Harvard University maintains a lending library of books, videos, and music; provides speakers for public talks at town libraries; and sponsors cultural fairs, reading groups, art workshops, and musical demonstrations.

A wish list for Middle Eastern studies, compiled by those who have devoted their careers to the field, would contain many similar items-more language study, more scholarly exchanges, more cross-disciplinary curriculums, less fixation on religion and politics. A social and political climate willing to entertain controversial points of view would also be helpful, Augustus Norton believes. Tolerance is key. Says Philip Khoury at MIT, "One can't intelligently study a part of the world whose culture one is hostile to.

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