Faculty, students ask for Mideast studies major
February 21, 2008 9:49 AM
To address an increased level of interest in the Middle East following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the United States’ continued occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, SF State introduced the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies minor into the curriculum in Fall 2007.
Despite the introduction of the minor, however, interested students and professors say it’s not enough—they want it to be a major.
“Students ask me why there isn’t a major,” said Professor Mohammad Salama, the Arabic program coordinator. “It’s unfortunate. If they want to major in Middle Eastern studies, they migrate to Berkeley.”
In California, only four universities currently offer undergraduate programs in Middle Eastern studies: UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego. Berkeley and UCLA offer graduate programs as well.
American universities were faced with a specific challenge after Sept. 11. Speculation and prejudice about Middle Eastern and Islamic culture were present in many facets—media, conversation and classroom discussion.
Salama himself can speak to the mistrust, fear and misunderstanding that Muslims and Middle Eastern individuals often face. Salama has lived in the U.S. for seven years (he is a citizen of Egypt) and has taught Arabic and MEIS courses since Fall 2005. His life was put on hold in June 2006 when he traveled to Toronto to upgrade his visa. The U.S. Embassy denied him reentry to the country, telling him that his name was flagged. Someone with the same name was under investigation, he was told. Despite being a professor at a major university, he was held for three months at the border before being issued a new visa.
“A journey that was supposed to last three days lasted 90 days,” Salama said. “It was disastrous.”
The run-in with the embassy further motivated Salama to create a program meant to educate the Western world about people and the culture from the Middle East.
“If we do have a program, we could avoid such things from happening again,” he said. “Mine was not an exclusive case—there are thousands [of people] in the same situation.”
Although the administration at SF State has been supportive of a major program in Middle Eastern studies, Salama said, a sense of xenophobia was pervasive following Sept. 11.
“It was a paradox, it’s a conflict,” he said. “There is a need to understand, but it was fused with fear. Anyone who is Muslim is feared.”
Kasey Rios Asberry, a graduate student in the geography program who has taken classes with Salama, considers the lack of a major a budgetary matter.
“If Chinese studies is well funded, if Japanese studies is funded, Arabic should be well funded,” she said. “If it’s an aspect of promoting peace, it puts it in a different light.”
Asberry noted that while the minor may only have about 60 to 75 people, a major in the program would attract enough students to support it, especially given SF State’s progressive history.
“It’s really significant,” she said. “SF State has such a tradition of studying multiple cultures—we have a 30-year history with the Ethnic Studies Department—Middle Eastern studies is even more needed.”
Turning Middle Eastern and Islamic studies into a major has proven more difficult than anticipated, said Nicole Watts, MEIS coordinator and assistant political science professor. She said the problem is the amount of work and time it will take, rather than a non-supportive administration or funding issues. She said a major would be more beneficial than what is currently being offered.
“The assumption that studying the Middle East can be linked into one course is problematic,” Watts said. “One minor is problematic.”
“We are in a strong position to let our minor flow for a couple of years and then start the major,” Salama said.
Katrina Yeaw, a 24-year-old graduate student in modern world history with an emphasis on the Middle East, has spent the last three semesters studying Arabic in Salama’s classroom.
But since SF State offers only Arabic I, II, and III, Yeaw turned to the East Bay to continue her studies. She has cross registration with UC Berkeley and commutes from San Francisco every weekday to take a one-hour course, Arabic IV, at Berkeley.
“It’s frustrating,” she said. “Language is really important to becoming a scholar on the Middle East, and since I’m applying to Ph.D programs next year, I have to keep taking Arabic.”
The minor focuses on the history of the wider Islamic world; it is not geographically based or restricted to one particular culture. It emphasizes the centuries beginning from the rise of Islam to the present day.
“Since 9/11 there has been this great desire to understand how and why these things happen,” Watts said. “It’s become very clear to students how interwoven and interlinked our lives are. [The Middle East] is very relevant to our daily lives as well as the future.”
Hassan Aburish, 21, an international relations major and member of the General Union of Palestinian Students, said it is more important than ever for Americans to dig beneath the surface of misconceptions regarding the Middle East.
“So many Americans are completely ignorant to the Middle East, especially Islam,” Aburish said. “They hear about Islamic Jihad and don’t know it’s an Islamic minority. Sept. 11 was carried out by 19 people, not the entire Middle East.”
Additional reporting by news editor Dan Verel.
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