Despite of increasing anti-Muslim sentiments in the United States, university professors specializing in Arabic, Islam and Middle Eastern studies said they’ve seen increasing numbers of college students taking their courses over the past year out of both curiosity and career preparation.
“When I look at the rosters, I’m seeing more criminal justice students, but also a more diverse student population. I’m seeing music majors, students majoring in biology — just a wide variety,” Mohammad Khalil, the director of the Muslim studies program at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, told International Business Times.
“People, they want to know what’s going on.”
With the increasing reports about ISIL atrocities, falsely committed in the name of Islam, Khalil has been taking the role of a myth buster, helping his students separate fact from fiction in the ongoing public discourse about Islam.
He usually gets questions like; does the Qur’an tell people to kill nonbelievers? Does the Islamic State group represent all Muslims?
With the increase of ISIL atrocities in 2014, Khalil noticed a shift on campus in his email box after alumni, from who he hadn’t heard in five years, suddenly wrote to him to ask questions about the news.
Currently, Michigan State offers a specialization in Muslim studies that requires two years of a foreign language like Arabic, Turkish and Persian, and five courses with Islamic content.
Options over the years have included “The Middle East: The Ottoman Empire,” “Islam and World Politics” and “Politics of Asia.”
“People feel a need to be educated on the topic of Islam and Muslims,” Khalil said.
“For some people, it’s almost like a prerequisite … to thrive in their respective fields.”
Many students shifted their interests in the university towards studying Islam or Arabic, seeing them as opening up better opportunities in work.
“I wanted to specialize in an area that was going to be of relevance for the 70-, 80-odd years my career is,” Tommy Collison, 21, who is from Ireland, said.
“America’s proximity to the Middle East is not going anywhere.”
Collison said he was initially pursuing a general political science degree along with journalism but realized “it would be both interesting and a professional advantage to speak Arabic.”
“We still have to learn Arabic. We still have to learn who founded these countries, what was Turkey’s journey from when it was part of Ottoman Empire to when it’s a republic today,” he said.
But “in the questions people bring up, it’s now focused on Paris, on ISIS, on Saudi Arabia,” Collison added.
Robert Crews, the director of the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University in Stanford, California, said he saw his largest enrollment ever this semester in his course “The Islamic Republics: Politics and Society in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
More than 60 students showed up for the first lecture, their majors ranging from humanities to computer science.
“What’s driving that is not ISIS narrowly but an awareness that Islam is playing a greater role in global affairs,” Crews said, using another acronym to refer to ISIL.
“These students want to develop a vocabulary in order to understand it and analyze it.”
Arabic studies have had a tumultuous few years as the US post-9/11 involvement in the Middle East developed.
From 2002 to 2006, enrollment in Arabic language classes increased by more than 120 percent.
Then from 2006 to 2009, it rose 46 percent more, according to data from the Modern Language Association.
Through 2013, however, it fell by 7.5 percent. Meanwhile, at least nine major postsecondary institutions added Islamic studies programs from 2001 to 2009.