Photo by Emily Grosvenor.

For Muslim Studies Program, First Milestones on a Long Road

The spring 2007 semester marks the first time that University of Iowa undergraduates can graduate with a transcript documenting their understanding of the Muslim world.

The development constitutes a major step for the university, which in 2003 joined the growing number of American universities scrambling to establish departments and academic programs focused on Muslim societies and Arabic and Middle Eastern languages.

The result, the University of Iowa Middle East and Muslim World Studies program, is out to do both — meet the interest for Arabic language and Muslim studies courses among students and fill the demand for the scholarly research in the field.

The program comprises a group of scholars committed to increasing understanding of the cultures, histories, economies, and politics of the Middle East, the Arab world and Islamic societies — a critical need following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But like similar nascent programs around the country, Middle East and Muslim world studies faces challenges of funding, of resources and of a lack of trained professionals in the field.

Organized under the auspice of international programs, the program remains a scattered collection of committed scholars without an established center. But it is showing its first successes.

Although the number of undergraduate seniors graduating with the emphasis this semester was not available at this printing, six international studies students have applied for the program emphasis since its creation in fall 2006.

Many more students are interested in the nascent program but have yet to declare it, according to International Studies Coordinator Martha Greer.

Following a trend documented by the Modern Language Association, the university has created course offerings in introductory, intermediate and accelerated Arabic courses, which 46 students are currently enrolled in.

“Building an awareness of the program and the availability of human resources on campus is our number one priority,” says Vicki Hesli, a political science professor and coordinator of the program.

The program also works to foster communication among scholars at the university whose research already involves some aspect of study of the Muslim world.

But there aren’t enough professionals trained in the broad field of Islamic studies in the United States, Hesli says. The existing programs have developed centers but they don’t produce enough scholars.

“We’re beginning to produce our own,” she says, citing the growth across disciplines of doctoral students focusing on issues related to the Muslim world.

The program also encourages faculty across disciplines to develop courses with components related to Muslim world studies.

“One of our main goals is to create more courses for students to take and to create understanding that way,” Hesli says.

Program leaders have placed a priority on community outreach.

“We see it as our responsibility to connect with Iowans who are not necessarily associated with the university – businessmen, leaders of mosques, leaders of civic organizations,” Hesli says.

To that end, the program has invited speakers from the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States to local leader Bill Aossey, CEO of the Midamar Corporation.

While competition for funding at Big Ten research universities is always fierce, the program received a great boost in 2004, when the University of Iowa Office of the Provost allocated $120,000 over two years for materials and staffing.

Since then, the University of Iowa Library has been acquiring Arabic language texts and access to online databases useful to scholarship of the Muslim world.

The university’s holdings now include 6,076 volumes in the Arabic language, up from around 3,200 just three years ago.

Perhaps the most important acquisition is one of access to online versions of the Index Islamicus and the Encyclopedia of Islam, the most comprehensive resource available in English and French on Muslim societies around the world.

Cultural anthropologist Ahmed Kanna, the program’s first post-doctoral fellow, says the library’s growing-but-still-limited availability of Arabic language resources has not been a deterrent to his work

“Scholars studying theology might not think [the collections] are so great, but my studies are contemporary and rely on fieldwork,” he says.

Kanna, who earned a master’s in Middle East studies from Harvard in 2000 and his doctorate in cultural anthropology in 2006, is an expert on Dubai’s transformation into a commercial and cultural powerhouse.

For the 2006-2007 academic year, Kanna has taught the undergraduate fall lecture course Middle East Today: A Social Inquiry, and the spring seminar Modern Arab Narratives of Identity.

He says he is impressed at the sheer curiosity of the students that enroll in his courses.

“They are exceptional academic achievers with an awareness of the complexity of the world,” Kanna says.

Kanna says that most of the students’ misperceptions of Islam were related to women’s roles.

“This is not just a problem at the University of Iowa,” he says. “I saw the same thing among undergraduates at Harvard.”

Student body vice president Carole Peterson, a junior international studies major who took Kanna’s introductory course in the fall of 2006, says most of the students came to the course with an understanding of the Islamic world informed exclusively by the media.

“[Kanna] really gave us a concrete and universal picture of the Muslim world,” Peterson says. “We left with a deeper understanding that Islam in itself is not a violent religion — but factions of it are.”

But despite its early successes, the program is not yet at a point where it can begin to distinguish itself from universities that have established Islamic studies centers.

“More than anything, we’re just getting up to speed,” says Hesli. “The good thing about it is that it’s not a hard sell at this point. We need to do this.”