Enthusiasm is running high about Gettysburg College's new program in Middle East and Islamic Studies (MEIS), funded by a $532,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
"The interest is definitely here," said religious studies Prof. Megan Adamson Sijapati, who teaches courses including Introduction to Islam. "A science student told me this was one of the best courses she has taken here, and that it opened her eyes more than she ever imagined."
Adding a tenure-track faculty member in Arabic languages and cultures, creating a new interdisciplinary academic minor, and focusing more strongly on study abroad are among the College's plans for the new program.
"The program is hugely relevant for students today," said history Prof. Karen Pinto, who teaches courses including U.S.-Middle East Interaction. "America is at war. Students need to understand why. It's really important for a liberal arts college to provide a more nuanced picture."
"The program will give our students the opportunity to understand a region and culture that are not very familiar to them," said political science Prof. Yasemin Akbaba, whose courses include Issues in Middle Eastern Politics. "We live in a world where problems are global, which requires everyone to work with each other."
"As we work with students who are interested in this part of the world, we see their excitement," said anthropology Prof. Amy Young, who teaches courses such as Culture and Politics in the Middle East. "Students are excited by the opportunity to learn Arabic, by the opportunity to push past stereotypes."
Faculty members' wide-ranging expertise will give the new program a broad interdisciplinary base.
Beyond the Middle East
The fact that much of the world's Muslim population resides in places like Bangladesh and Indonesia posed a real problem in naming the new MEIS program, said history Prof. Karen Pinto, who was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and received her doctorate from Columbia University.
"Islamic Studies" alone could give a mistaken impression that the program is focused solely on theology, she said, while "Middle East" is a 20th-century American-centered term that replaces the colonial British "Near East." Despite the term's limitations and ever-fluctuating boundaries, she said, "Middle East" simultaneously makes sense to American students and provides a jumping-off point for discussion.
Geographic assumptions are also central to Pinto's research on Islamic maps from the 11th century forward, which, through place names and other features, represent history and changing mindsets as much as landforms.
Defying stereotypes in Morocco
Anthropology Prof. Amy Young's experiences defy preconceived notions about Islam and the Middle East.
Her year and a half of fieldwork among women in Morocco taught her that "they have their own things to say about the situation of women, how much more complex it is than the way we stereotype it here. We don't have a good sense of their inner strength and the ingenious ways they find to deal with their situation."
Young, who earned her Ph.D. at Harvard University, has traveled extensively to locations including Afghanistan, where she presented her work on using religious arguments to craft laws protecting women's rights.
Creating connections in Turkey
Lawmakers are at the center of political science Prof. Yasemin Akbaba's current research. She travelled to Turkey this past spring to interview members of parliament, diplomats, and academics to gauge the effect of the ruling party's Islamic roots on foreign policy toward Iran and Israel.
Akbaba, who was born in Istanbul and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri, said her students will forge close connections with Turkish colleagues in her Contemporary Issues in Turkish Politics course next spring. "Our students in Gettysburg will be paired up with students located in Izmir, Turkey. They will do assignments, conduct surveys, and communicate through Skype (a web-based long-distance telephone service) with students in Turkey," she said.
Muslims as a minority in Nepal
Religious studies Prof. Megan Adamson Sijapati lived for more than a year in the Kathmandu Valley, conducting research and gaining important insight into Nepal's Muslim minority, which has long suffered discrimination and violence at the hands of the Hindu majority. Her book, Islamic Revival in Nepal: Religion and a New Nation, will soon be published.
Sijapati, who earned her doctorate at the University of California in Santa Barbara, said her research and teaching share one goal: to help students see that "Islam, like any religion, is multidimensional and not monolithic," and that a huge portion of Muslim life is outside the Arab world and the Middle East.
Language breaks down barriers
"Arabic language is an essential component" of MEIS, said May Saffar, who is teaching the language as this year's Arabic Fellow.
"Since the events of 9/11 and the increasingly complicated political dynamics between the United States and the Arab world, I have developed a passion for contributing to cultural and linguistic understanding. Knowing the language of another breaks down barriers and helps to build bridges between people, prevent war, and create a more peaceful world," she said.
A native of Baghdad, Iraq, she holds an M.S. in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from the University at Albany and a B.A. in Arabic-English translation from AI- Mustansiriyah University, College of Liberal Arts, Baghdad.
Two more professors will broaden the MEIS program:
• Economics Prof. Yahya Mete Madra holds a B.A. from Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey and a Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Madra teaches courses including Political Economy of Oil. Madra's ongoing research interests reflect the interdisciplinary breadth inherent in the liberal arts: Marxism and psychoanalysis, economic methodology and the philosophy of economics, and contemporary art. Pinto credited Madra with formulating the final form of the MEIS program's name.
• Religious studies Prof. Stephen Stern's courses include Religion and Politics in the Middle East, God Wrestling: Philosophy of Religion, History, Literature and Religion of the Hebrew Scriptures, and Twentieth Century Jewish Thought. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon. Stern directs the campus Hillel organization.
• Gettysburg College also recently approved a minor in Judaic Studies.
Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition that includes Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate and other distinguished scholars among its alumni. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.