Twenty years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks spurred interest in Middle Eastern studies, Ralph Salmi was Cal State San Bernardino's only expert on the region.
Today, after a spattering of new hires, the university boasts about a half-dozen professors teaching anthropology, history, languages, humanities and politics of the Middle East.
With these experts in place, Arabic language classes established and relationships with schools in the Middle East blossoming, Cal State San Bernardino is well on its way to becoming the first campus in the Cal State system with a center focused on the Middle East.
If it can find the funding, the university hopes to form the Center for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, at least on paper, by the end of the year. Three University of California campuses -- Berkeley, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara -- already have Middle Eastern studies centers.
"It's opening up our student body to a whole new culture," Arabic language lecturer Dany Doueiri said of Middle Eastern studies. "Hopefully, it will enrich our community and our students' experience."
Further proof of Cal State San Bernardino's burgeoning Middle Eastern studies program comes with this spring's arrival of a visiting Fulbright Scholar from the Palestinian territories and 15 Turkish scholars who will live and attend classes on campus.
Middle Eastern studies grew in prominence as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the war in Iraq focused public attention on the region.
"The Middle East is strategically one of the most important places in the world," Salmi said. "Politically, it's the most volatile. Second, it's a center for the development of all three major monotheistic faiths. Finally, it's of profound national security interest to us. Why more American people don't know about it is beyond me."
Gonca Bayraktar, a visiting Turkish scholar, taught Islam and Islamic history at Cal State San Bernardino last year.
"The students had no idea (of) the very basic characteristics of Islam or its history," Bayraktar said. "They only know Islam from the media and its connotation with terrorism."
Students sign up for these classes for different reasons. Some want to understand their culture. Others are interested in current events. Some are history majors who need a course in non-Western history.
"Students come in with stereotypes and sound bites they've heard on the news," history professor David N. Yaghoubian said. "History can't be taught in sound bites."
The professors must help them see beyond the sound bites, that citizens don't always agree with their governments and neighboring countries don't always agree with one another.
"There are no easy answers," Yaghoubian said. "If diversity of opinion isn't brought to students, they'll have no idea why these problems are so difficult to solve."
Students say the classes help.
"It's given me a good framework to fall back on as I try to analyze things going on in the region," 24-year-old graduate student Filomeno Batayola said of the Middle Eastern governments and politics class he took as an undergraduate.
Cal State San Bernardino has been laying the foundation for its Middle Eastern center since before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, which aroused interest in the Middle East at universities across the country.
It is one of the few Cal State campuses teaching Arabic and will soon be the only campus teaching Turkish.
Doueiri started teaching Arabic at Cal State San Bernardino three years ago; about 16 students took Arabic 101 each quarter. Now 25 to 28 attend the beginning class and others are taking the more advanced classes.
Doueiri says his students take Arabic for various reasons -- to enhance a political science, national security or international business career; to study a language less common in school than French or Spanish; or because they are dating someone from the Middle East.
The school also has hired professors with Middle East specialties in departments like anthropology and communications -- not just political science or language.
On Saturday, visiting Fulbright Scholar Qustandi Shomali will arrive from Bethlehem University in the Palestinian territories as part of a new program. Cal State San Bernardino is the only university in the state participating in the Fulbright Visiting Specialists: Direct Access to the Muslim World program.
Shomali will spend six weeks working with professors to develop courses relating to the Middle East.
In April, 15 scholars from Gazi University in Ankara, Turkey, will arrive at Cal State San Bernardino for intensive language classes so they can teach in English at their home campus. The group's members will also attend classes in their areas of study and learn about American culture.
"This gives us an opportunity to interact with a very impressive group of Turkish scholars across all disciplines, including a medical doctor," Salmi said.
This program is part of Cal State San Bernardino's and Gazi University's close relationship, which Cal State has replicated with universities in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian territories. Cal State San Bernardino is working on agreements for educational and research opportunities in Morocco, Egypt, Dubai, the Philippines and other locales.
Turkish and Saudi Arabian faculty and dignitaries visited this school year. Seven Cal State San Bernardino students will visit Turkey for language classes this summer.
On April 1 and 2, Cal State San Bernardino and the University of Redlands will hold a joint conference on "Understanding the Middle East: Perspectives on Politics, History and Culture."
The two universities recently received a shared $700,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education for teaching and developing a program in Middle Eastern studies. The grant is paying for the conference.
Cal State San Bernardino still needs to find steady funding for its bproposed center. The university is looking for a grant that would start a trust fund for the program. After they get money, professors will work out the details -- number and type of classes included in a major, and scaling the center to match the funding level, for example.
Cal State San Bernardino's center ideally will include both academic and vocational elements so students not only learn about the Middle East but also what they can do with that knowledge.
Some academics and politicians have attacked Islamic and Middle Eastern studies programs for being anti-American. Congress may even form an advisory committee to make sure government-funded Middle Eastern studies centers are teaching a balanced and fair curriculum.
Many educators fear that the bill -- House Resolution 3077, the International Studies in Higher Education Act -- would give the government too much control over what professors teach.
But it wouldn't affect places like Cal State San Bernardino, which hasn't asked for Title VI funding and won't if the bill becomes law and ntries to restrict teaching in any way.
The proposal has brought attention to what some say is anti-American bias in Middle Eastern studies.
It's an old complaint. Soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni -- founded by Vice President Dick Cheney's wife, Lynne, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., among others -- released a report called "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It."
The report hammered college professors who, it said, blamed America for the attacks and were generally unpatriotic.
In October 2001, Martin Kramer, editor of the right-wing Middle Eastern Quarterly, released his "Ivory Towers in the Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America."
About a year later, the director of the Middle East Forum founded the Campus Watch Web site, which tracks news about Middle Eastern studies programs with an eye for professors it deems biased.
Salmi rejects these allegations of bias as "absolute nonsense."
Professors, he said, have the same kind of opinions and biases as anyone else. But, overwhelmingly, the professors try to provide objective information, he said.
"In my experience, it's very transparent when someone is teaching with a political agenda," Yaghoubian said.
Yaghoubian recognizes that some scholarship is politically motivated, but says he hasn't seen that in his first year at Cal State San Bernardino.
"My goal has been to expose students to this diversity of opinion and teach them to be critical readers and make up their own minds," Yaghoubian said of his history classes. "I'm not interested in what their end interpretation is going to be, but rather that they can form an interpretation."
MIDDLE EASTERN PROGRAMS AT OTHER UNIVERSITIES:
University of Arizona, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Binghamton University (N.Y.), Institute of Global Cultural Studies
UC Berkeley, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
UCLA, Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies
UC Santa Barbara, Center for Middle East Studies
University of Chicago, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Columbia University, Middle East Institute
University of Denver, Institute for Islamic-Judaic Studies
Georgetown University, Center for Contemporary Arab Studies
Harvard Law School, Islamic Legal Studies Program
Harvard University, Center of Middle Eastern Studies
University of Michigan, Center for Middle Eastern North African Studies
New York University, Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies
Ohio State University, Middle East Studies Center
University of Pennsylvania, Middle East Center
Portland State University (Ore.), Middle East Studies Center
University of Texas at Austin, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
University of Utah, Middle East Center
University of Washington, Middle East Center
Yale University, Council on Middle East Studies