The world's fastest growing religion has a growing department at the University studying it.
The Rutgers University Center for Middle Eastern Studies is a program through which students can explore the diverse canvas of cultures, societies, religions, languages, histories and politics of the countries that comprise the region of the Middle East.
"The Middle East is much more complex than it appears on the surface," said Afshin Razani, an instructor in the Middle Eastern Studies Department.
"Islam is the fastest growing religion, with nearly 1.3 billion followers who come from many different parts of the world," said Paola Rizzuto, staff member at the center.
"Despite this fact, Islam is still one of the least understood faiths."
The region of the Middle East cannot be defined or generalized in any one specific manner, and one must be able to understand the complexity and diversity of the Middle East, as to avoid any one-sided interpretations, Razani said.
Razani said some of the most popular courses of the department are Introduction to the Modern Middle East, a required course for a major and minor in the program, and courses that focus on contemporary Middle Eastern issues and politics.
The department's language courses are also very popular, Razani said. Students can take courses in Persian, Arabic, Hebrew and, as of this semester, Turkish.
Currently, the center is expanding and will be introducing a contemporary Arab studies program and a class called Islam and Democracy in the near future, Razani said.
The center's Web site is also undergoing a major overhaul to make it more interactive and informative, said Razani.
The expansion of the program is due in part to the help of community leaders. The center strives to be involved both with the Rutgers community and surrounding communities, said Razani.
A part of this community involvement is achieved through programs the center hosts throughout the semester.
This semester, the center hosted the speaker Azar Nafisi, author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran"; a unity iftaar, breaking of the fast during Ramadan; a fundraising dinner that focused on Islam in the Contemporary world and Gaza: Pictorial of a Humanitarian Crisis with AP photographer and Washington reporter on Middle East Affairs correspondent Mohammed Omer, according to an e-mail from Rizzuto.
The center is planning to host several more events next semester, Rizzuto said.
The center's fundraiser event last Thursday, entitled "Rituals in Islam," was meant to increase awareness about the Islamic faith and was attended by 60 to 70 people, Rizzuto said.
The event hosted Emmy award-winning journalist Anisa Mehdi and Peter Chelkowski, New York University professor of Middle Eastern Studies.
In addition to hosting events that educate the community on Middle Eastern cultures, the center also works with outside groups such as Global Citizen 2000, a program that will enable high school teachers to increase the quantity and quality of teaching about the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe and globalization, according to the Global Citizen 2000 Web site.
"As members of the Rutgers University community, we are in a unique position to foster unity and to raise cultural awareness," Rizzuto said. "New Jersey is the most diverse state in America, and this is reflected in the demographics of our community of scholars."