This past week, the Trump administration announced that it would admit no more than 30,000 refugees to the U.S. in the coming year, down from the current cap of 45,000. Earlier this month, the right-wing, anti-immigration Sweden Democrat party saw a surge in its parliamentary power, coming in third place in a recent election with 17.6 percent of the vote. The uptip in the party's parliamentary representation will likely reshape Sweden's immigration policies. The Swedish Democrat Party, with its anti-immigrant sentiment, taps into public opinion across Europe. A recent Pew Research Center study found that 61 percent of Italians and 56 percent of Poles expressed a negative view of Muslims in their country.
Far-right nationalist parties such as the National Front in France, AfD in Germany, and the BJP in India (just to name a few) have been on the rise in recent years. These political actors stir up a fear of all things related to Islam by scapegoating Muslims and blaming them for a lack of jobs, exploiting welfare systems, and stoking violent conflict. These parties, and their millions of followers, look to the Middle East and blame internal conflict in the region and the global refugee crisis on some sort of inherent fallibility limited to the followers of Islam.
However, Connecticut College is working to combat the narrative that Muslims are evil, violent, and only come from the Middle East. Late last week, it was announced that the Global Islamic Studies Department had received a four-year $806,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation to continue to foster interdisciplinary study of Islam on a global scale. "We've made it clear that what we want is to undo that knowledge construction," said Professor Sufia Uddin, a core faculty member and the former director of Global Islamic Studies. She continued, saying, "Mellon doesn't just give money away. The grant represents a firm belief in what we're doing– that what we're doing is the right thing."
"Students come to Connecticut College and want to study, 'why Muslims hate us' or they say, 'we have to do security studies because we are in conflict with Muslims and we must destroy them, or defeat them, or keep them contained. The language can vary from very blatantly racist and prejudicial to more subtle terms. We're trying to undo that," said Uddin.
The grant is multi-faceted, but the main goals are to further develop Global Islamic Studies and to infuse the knowledge shared by the professors into different departments across the curriculum. There are opportunities for professors who already teach on aspects of Islam to enhance their scholarship and change the way they teach their classes. Additionally, there will be an exchange program with Brown University in which Connecticut College professors will be able to go to Brown and study some aspect of Islam and Muslim communities globally. In return, Brown will be sending advanced Graduate students to teach courses at Conn.
"How I teach modern European history has definitely changed in a positive way since becoming a part of this program," said Professor Eileen Kane, the current director of Global Islamic Studies. Kane, a Historian of Eastern Europe, likened the rapid growth of the Global Islamic Studies Department at Conn to the political aftermath of the Russian Revolution. "It's kind of like how Lenin saw it as a strength that there had never really been flourishing capitalism– or not to the same extent as Western Europe. He said, 'we're lucky because we can skip over that stage and just go right to socialism and communism. We never had (like many other colleges and universities) a Middle East Studies program here, and that was seen as a strength. A lot of programs have renamed themselves 'Islamic Studies' but they're really just about the Middle East."
Discussing the growth of Global Islamic Studies after an initial seed grant from the Mellon Foundation in 2012, Professor Uddin said, "We are working on reimagining how people study Muslims and Islam. A lot of colleges have tried that already but they get too much resistance– people just don't want to commit to that. It's really because they're so tied to the link they have to Orientalism."
When creating the program, Professor Uddin saw that the faculty expertise lay largely outside of the Middle East, focusing on areas such as Bangladesh, North Africa, Turkey, Russia, and South East Asia. "Most Muslims live outside of the Middle East," remarked Professor Kane. She continued, saying, "Muslims do not live in isolation. Historically, Muslims have always lived among other people. The program is also very much about studying Muslim communities as part of world history and cultures."
The new grant from the Mellon Foundation will provide funding for additional Foreign Language Across Curriculum (FLAC) courses and will also bolster the Structured Independent Language Study (SILS) program operated out of the Walter Commons in Blaustein. Amy Dooling, the Associate Dean of Global Initiatives and Director of the Walter Commons for Global Study and Engagement, said that SILS has been a great success since launching last spring, and has broadened the list of languages students could learn during their time at Conn. These courses are operated mostly by student tutors, under the oversight of Laura Little, who already speak languages such as Urdu, Turkish, and Bengali for students interested in learning something other than classical Arabic.
Professors Kane and Uddin were particularly excited about the interdisciplinary nature of Global Islamic Studies. "What's great about Global Islamic Studies is that we also learn from a number of different areas, such as Post-Colonial studies. Our partnerships should be with fields of study like Africana Studies, Latin American Studies, Native American studies– the struggles of other people who have been persecuted can help enlighten one's own area," said Uddin.
Fiona Hull '21, a History and Global Islamic Studies double major, said, "I'm really excited. I think this will make us more of a legitimate department. I think it'll encourage students who would otherwise do International Relations to keep pursuing Global Islamic Studies because you can combine your interests in a way that's much more impactful or meaningful."