When Aminah McCloud plies the halls of DePaul University's religious studies department, her curly gray hair hidden beneath a colorful cap, there are no clues the professor is a Muslim. So students feel free to speak their minds about Islam--and they often do.
"In one class, a student said, `You know Islams are not very friendly,'" recalled McCloud, 56, who prefers caps to traditional Islamic head scarves. "Students think there are Christians and Christianity and Jews and Judaism, so there must be Islams in Islam. Some don't know the term Muslim."
Concerned over the ignorance among Americans about the Islamic world in a time of rising tensions, McCloud is helping DePaul launch a groundbreaking Islamic studies department.
Arabic-language courses have boomed in universities since Sept. 11, 2001, and many universities now offer courses in Islamic studies as part of Middle East or other liberal arts departments. But experts say DePaul is the first in the United States to carve out a separate faculty for a program allowing undergraduates to earn a degree.
Beginning in September, students can enroll in a range of courses, from Islamic civilization to history and culture. The Islamic World Studies program will aim to teach the distinctions among Islamic countries and sects, and familiarize students with the Muslim community at home.
The program is unique because of its broad scope and its emphasis on Islam as a religion rather than merely as a modern political phenomenon, experts said.
"That Islam was the core of civilization and a worldwide religion is absent from undergraduate study," McCloud said. "The only thing talked about worldwide is Muslim terrorists."
Michael Mezey, dean of DePaul's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said the university believes Islamic studies should be given the same prominence as coursework in Judaism and Christianity.
"The level of ignorance we display in this country about the Islamic world and the stereotypes and generalizations we casually make are stunning," Mezey said. "If universities don't concentrate on this, who will?"
Just as the Cold War gave birth to student demands for courses on the Soviet Union, the United States' new engagement with the Islamic world following the Sept. 11 attacks, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the war in Iraq have inspired new university curriculums.
After the attacks, Congress approved an additional $20 million for Middle Eastern studies and language programs that center on that region and Asia.
"I think the need for education on Islam is great," said Amy Newhall, executive director of the Middle East Studies Association, a national group based in Phoenix. "We continue to be struck at how little the general public knows. Our neighbors are going to be Muslims and we need to know about Islam."
Rashid Khalidi, a history professor at Columbia University and an expert on the Middle East, said it is important for Americans to learn about the Islamic world in all of its historical and cultural dimensions. The focus in the media and at some universities on terrorism, he said, is an obstacle to understanding everything from Iraqi resistance to the U.S. occupation to the causes of the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation.
"Americans don't pay attention to history," Khalidi said. "Why? Because Americans came here to begin with to escape the past. Americans have had the good fortune to live on the largest island on Earth."
Khaled Keshk, a DePaul religious studies professor who will teach some courses in the new program, said American universities should modernize curricula that has been taught from a colonialist perspective.
"Many Middle East centers teach about Lawrence of Arabia," Keshk said, referring to the British officer who served as liaison to the Arabs in the 1920s and later promoted the cause of Arab independence. "But we want to study the religious ramifications of what is happening."
For McCloud, the program caps years as an activist trying to enlighten non-Muslims about Islam and Muslims about themselves. She also has been an outspoken critic of immigrant Muslims in the United States for not reaching out to African-American Muslims born here.
But one challenge still awaits her, she said. "The dean has given us startup money, but we need money for a library and scholarships."