Islamic Studies a Hot New Course at U.S. Colleges

Shortly after noon recently at the University of Miami, students shuffle into a classroom. They’re lucky to be here — the class is full, and there’s a waiting list to get in. The course, Introduction to Islam, is one of a growing number of Islamic studies courses being offered by universities across the country.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, interest in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies has surged and universities are scrambling to meet that demand. But they face a shortage of qualified professors, as well as accusations of bias in the classroom.

University of Miami instructor Irene Oh is not a specialist in Islam, but demand was so great for an introductory course on the religion, she was pressed into service. Oh acknowledges that teaching the course makes her a bit nervous — more nervous than teaching, say, Introduction to Buddhism. That’s because she knows she’s being watched.

Organizations such as Campus Watch are on the lookout for professors who proselytize in the classroom or paint a distorted picture of Islam and the Middle East. Gary Tobin, author of The Uncivil University says it happens all the time.

“If you’re a Middle East studies faculty member and the map of the Middle East you’re teaching from does not have the state of Israel on it, that is geographically and politically inaccurate,” he says. “It’s not good scholarship.”

Or, says Tobin, consider the word “jihad.” Many professors, he claims, teach one meaning of the word — jihad as a social movement or personal struggle — and ignore the other meaning of jihad as a religious holy war.

Tobin and others also worry about who is funding Islamic and Middle Eastern studies. Last month, Harvard and Georgetown universities each received $20 million from a member of the Saudi royal family, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the richest man in the Muslim world.

The prince says he gave the money to “bridge the gap between East and West.” But Gary Tobin says the prince hasn’t always been a bridge builder. “This is a person who has donated money to the families of suicide bombers. This is a person who has investments in media that portray the protocols of the Elders of Zion and other anti-Semitic kinds of programs,” he says. “Is this… the person you want associated with your institution?”

Officials at Georgetown and Harvard defend their decision to accept the grant from bin Talal. “Frankly, I find (such accusations) humorous,” says John Esposito, director of Georgetown’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, recently renamed to honor Prince bin Talal. “A lot of these statements are ideologically or politically motivated,” he says.

Esposito describes the Saudi prince as someone who “promotes coexistence rather than clash.” But the prince has been embroiled in controversy before. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, bi Talal donated $10 million to help New York City’s uniformed victims. Rudolph W. Giuliani, the mayor of the city at the time, returned the check after the prince called on the U.S. government to “re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance towards the Palestinian cause.”

Esposito himself has come under attack by groups like Campus Watch, which has called him an “apologist for militant Islam.” But Esposito says his critics have an agenda and try to intimidate any professor who disagrees with that agenda. Untenured professors, he says, are especially vulnerable.

At the University of Miami, at least, students say they are pleased with the course on Islam. Peter Borris, a senior, dismisses fears that taking a course on Islam will somehow convert him to the faith. “I’ve been taking religious courses for four years now and none have really made me want to get into religion,” he says. “In fact, it usually does the opposite.”