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Islamic Scholars
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 the cluster.

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

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