On a late, fall afternoon, students
in a Thornton Hall classroom are debating the role of civil society in
the democratization of the Middle East. It's the kind of topic that a
lot of people felt had little connection to their lives just a few years
ago. But these students -- viewing the world through a post-Sept. 11 lens
-- are talking as if the subject has everything to do with their lives.
The course, "State-Society Relations in the Middle East," is
among 17 offerings that make up a new general-education cluster called
Islamic Societies and Cultures. Undergraduates can fulfill part of their
general-education degree requirements by taking nine units from the cluster.
Courses in the new cluster run the gamut of disciplines. There are offerings
in history, political science and international relations but also courses
in Islamic architecture, Middle Eastern music, and Arab and Arab-American
literature. Plans call for new offerings in Islamic mysticism and Arab
images in the media.
The Islamic cluster is part of a broader effort that began even before
Sept. 11, 2001, to create a vibrant community of Islamic scholarship on
campus. Nine new faculty members specializing in various aspects of the
Islamic and Middle Eastern worlds have joined the faculty in the past
two years; more are expected.
"It's really exciting. I think this is going to put us on the map,"
said Carel Bertram, an assistant professor of humanities who helped create
Nicole Kelly, a senior philosophy major who was taking part in the debate
on civil society, is part Lebanese and has been interested in the Middle
East for as long as she can remember. But the post-Sept. 11 world made
her want to learn about the region from an academic standpoint, so she
enrolled in the State-Society course, taught by Nicole Watts, an ex-journalist
who now specializes in Kurdish issues.
"I think what the majority of North Americans learn about the Middle
East is from the Bush administration and the media, and I call that propaganda,"
said Kelly. "It's a good idea to take a class where you get fact
as opposed to fiction."
-- Ted DeAdwyler