Islamic Studies a Hot New Course at U.S. Colleges What's the hottest new course on many college campuses? Islamic studies. A Saudi prince recently donated $40 million to Georgetown and Harvard universities to expand their programs. However, some universities face a shortage of professors and a minefield of controversy.
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Islamic Studies a Hot New Course at U.S. Colleges

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

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

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This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Madeleine Brand, college news now. Islamic studies are more and more popular on many campuses, one consequence of the September 11th attacks. So many students want to study the subject that some schools can't find enough qualified professors. And, as NPR's Eric Weiner reports, there are critics who claim that some professors of Islam are teaching a one-sided view of the religion.

ERIC WEINER, reporting:

It's shortly after twelve noon at the University of Miami, and students are shuffling into the classroom. They're carrying the usual college gear, cell phone, coffee mug, and sullen expression. The 30 or so students slump into their seats and gaze warily at the professor.

Professor IRENE OH (Islamic Studies, University of Miami): Okay everyone, my name is Irene Oh, and I will be your professor for Introduction to Islam.

WEINER: Irene Oh is not a specialist in Islam, but demand was so great for an introductory course on Islam, she was pressed into service. Professor Oh starts by asking each student to stand and explain why they're taking the course. The answers range from curiosity...

J.C. (Student at Miami University): My name is J.C. I'm taking this class because I don't know anything about Islam, except for what I hear on CNN, so.

WEINER: To opportunism.

Mr. HASSAN IMAM (Student at Miami University): My name's Hassan Imam, I took this class because I thought it was going to be an easy A.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WEINER: The only one not laughing is Professor Oh. She warns her Muslim students, there are several in this class, not to count on a free ride.

Prof. Oh: It's not going to be an easy A just because you're Muslim. But, I think this will be a fantastic class. I love teaching this class, because students are incredibly interested in Islam these days, and there are so few opportunities for you to learn about this religious tradition if you're not Muslim. And if you are Muslim, what you hear in the media might not adhere to anything that you've learned growing up.

WEINER: Later, after the students leave, Professor Oh acknowledges that, teaching this 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 who paint a distorted picture of Islam and the Middle East. Gary Tobin, author of The Uncivil University, says it happens all the time.

Mr. GARY TOBIN (Author): If you're a Middle East Studies faculty member, and the map of the Middle East that you're teaching from does not have the State of Israel on it, well, that's geographically and politically inaccurate. It's not good scholarship.

WEINER: Or, says Tobin, take 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, Jihad as 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, 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 himself.

Mr. TOBIN: This is a person who has donated money to the families of suicide bombers. This is a person who owns, or has investments in media that portray the protocols of the Elders of Zion, and other anti-Semitic kinds of programs. That's the ethical issue.

Professor JOHN ESPOSITO (Director of Center for Muslim/Christian Understanding, Georgetown University): Frankly, I find is humorous. I think that, a lot of these statements are, I don't know what, ideologically or politically motivated.

WEINER: John Esposito is Director of Georgetown University's Center for Muslim/Christian Understanding, now known as the Price Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim/Christian Understanding.

Mr. ESPOSITO: It's important to remember, this is somebody who studied in the United States, did his B.A. here and his M.A., so he knows the U.S., and owns corporations that are based here. But, post 9/11, he demonstrated his concern that, it was important to promote coexistence, rather than clash...

WEINER: Professor Esposito himself has come under attack by groups like Campus Watch, which has called him an apologist for militant Islam. Esposito counters that his critics are less interested in the truth, and more interested in intimidation.

Mr. ESPOSITO: Well, the whole purpose being, to say to those that are non-tenured in the profession, you know, we'll watch you, we'll cite you, we'll say things about you in the public venue that might come back to haunt you when you come up for tenure. So, there is an attempt to intimidate and silence people.

WEINER: Back at the University of Miami, the first day of Intro to Islam wraps up, and the students shuffle out of the classroom. None seem particularly worried that the teacher has an agenda, or is trying to convert them to Islam. Peter Barris is a senior from Memphis, Tennessee.

Mr. PETER BARRIS (Senior, Miami University): I've been taking religion classes for four years now, and none of them have really made me want to get into religion. In fact, it usually does the opposite. And, it's just, I just want to learn, you know?

WEINER: Eric Weiner, NPR News, Miami.

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