Islam Experts Off On a Wild Ride, Willing or Not

‘It’s been a roller coaster,” said Okbar S. Ahmed, a Pakistani scholar who had just started a new teaching job at American University in Washington this fall when the terrorist attacks hit the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

”I had just finished a quiet year of research at Princeton and then suddenly I was thrown in the deep end of the pool,” he said. As a scholar of Islam, a Pakistani diplomat and a former governor of a region of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan, Mr. Ahmed was in hot demand. ”I even found myself called up in the presence of her majesty of American culture, Oprah Winfrey herself,” Mr. Ahmed said, speaking of an appearance on her show called ”Islam 101.” After his appearance on the show, Mr. Ahmed’s recent book, ”Islam Today: a Short Introduction to the Muslim World,” published by I.B. Tauris, a small, scholarly British press, suddenly became one of the top 40 sellers on

Not everyone’s experience has been as happy. The mosque in Denton, Tex., the town where Mahmoud Sadri, an Iranian sociologist, lives and teaches was firebombed. ”Three mosques within 45 minutes’ drive of where I am were vandalized,” said Mr. Sadri, who has a joint appointment at Texas Woman’s University and the University of North Texas. Several foreign students on the campuses were roughed up, friends offered him a place to stay if he were afraid to remain at home, and the administration of the university told him that, under the circumstances, they would not object if he canceled his course on Islamic culture and civilization. ”By no means will I cancel class,” Mr. Sadri replied, ”This is indeed the time in which we need to discuss these things. If we cannot decide these events in academia, then there is no hope for the rest of society.”

In many ways from giving press interviews; speaking to student groups, the faculty, alumni, students and community and business groups; writing articles or providing information — scholars with an expertise in everything from medieval Arabic poetry to Middle Eastern terrorism are finding themselves in the spotlight and are being asked to, or are feeling compelled to, play a public role beyond their normal professorial duties.

”Even the most apolitical student recognizes, after the terrorist attacks, that there are things they urgently need to know,” said John G. Mason, chairman of the political science department at William Paterson University in New Jersey. ”Political science has had declining enrollment for years. Now suddenly that’s changed. Although it’s still anecdotal, when 10 people suddenly change their major, it means something.” A campus teach-in on Sept. 25 attracted more than 600 students out of a student body of 10,000.

Jonathan Brockopp, a professor of religion at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., for example, was asked by major media outlets to interpret a four-page Arabic document released by the Justice Department and believed to have been written by one of the hijackers. ”I work on early Islamic law and ancient manuscripts, and so these questions of interpretation are quite familiar to me,” he said.

American University in Washington, with its emphasis on public policy and foreign affairs, received 590 media requests in September and 578 in October, both monthly records, said Todd Sedmark, the university’s director of public information, and more than twice the usual volume. Universities have also been dealing with major problems, too.

About 50 members of the Study of Islam section of the American Academy of Religion — the chief academic association for professors of religion — immediately set about creating a Web site on Islam after the Sept. 11 attacks (http://groups ”Our primary concern was explaining that this act was not representative of all of Islam, and we wanted to post the many Muslim responses of grief and solidarity to counteract the images of Palestinians celebrating in the streets,” Mr. Brockopp said.

”We have had several thousand visits to the site and are still getting a few hundred hits a day,” said Omid Safi, a professor of religion at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., ”and they are coming from all over the world, including places I didn’t know had Internet access.”

Mr. Brockopp, who is a scholar of early Islamic law and ancient Arabic manuscripts, said: ”We teach Buddhism and Hinduism, and we always have students who are excited. But when we teach Islam, students often come in with a combative posture. I’ve had numerous students tell me that their parents told them not to take the class, but they took it anyway. I myself am a Christian, but I represent a view of the Islamic tradition that is appreciative of all its elements — the architecture and poetry.” As he was speaking over the phone, Mr. Brockopp put on a recording of a Koranic recitation to give an idea of the aesthetic appeal that religion has for many Muslims.

Charles Kimball, chairman of the religion department at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., has done more than 100 interviews and is deluged in requests from church groups and corporate groups that suddenly feel the need to know about Islam. ”I was talking to a group of about 150 top executives of the Sara Lee Company, and I asked how many people knew what U.S. policy in Algeria has been,” he said. ”Not one person raised their hand, and these are bright, well-informed people.” Mr. Kimball explained that the Algerian government had canceled elections when it appeared that Islamic fundamentalists were about to win, a decision supported by the United States and its principal allies. ”We say we stand for one man one vote, but not everywhere. Most of the kids protesting in the streets of Pakistan know this, and so we need to know it, too.”

On campus, many faculty members have responded by redesigning their courses to respond to a sudden demand for information that relates to Sept. 11 and its aftermath.

At Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., Michael Leming, a sociology professor, decided to devote most of his class on ”Death, Dying and Bereavement” to studying the effects of the terrorist attack. Prof. Fred Strickert threw out the usual lesson plan for his World Religions class. Instead of teaching about Islam in one unit at the end of the course, he began with Islam and has spent half the semester on it.

At Georgia State University in Atlanta, John L. Iskander, a first year professor, felt compelled to reorganize his introduction to Islam. ”I have roughly doubled the amount of time that I am planning to spend on Islam and modernity to try to deal with the current conflict, the political and social roots of anger at the United States and the variety of ways that Muslims have attempted to deal with modernity,” he wrote in response to an e-mail query.

At Southwest Texas State University, in San Marcos, Wayman Mullin, a criminal justice professor, reorganized a course about politically violent American groups like the Ku Klux Klan and right-wing militias, into a course on international terrorism. Demand for the course has been so great he has scheduled it next semester in an auditorium for 300 instead of the 50 or 60 who usually take it.

Many professors find themselves being asked to instruct other faculty members, who also feel a tremendous need to know. At Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., about a quarter of the 100 people on the faculty have been attending weekly two-hour discussion groups related to Sept. 11, said William E. DeMars, chairman of the department of government.

After some initial violence and intimidation at the University of North Texas, Mr. Sadri reports a surprisingly high degree of public receptivity. The university was initially reluctant to allow him and others to have a public discussion, insisting that known conservative participants be included. But when the forum attracted a crowd of 500 students and stimulated a peaceful, thoughtful discussion, the university was very happy, he said. ”I was reminded of Tocqueville, who said 170 years ago that the American people are blissfully ignorant and geographically isolated,” Mr. Sadri said. ”Well, Tocqueville’s America came to an end on Sept. 11: no one can pretend that America is isolated and protected from the rest of the world. And it can no longer afford to be blissfully ignorant.”

– 11 November, 2001

Published at The New York Times


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