Florida State University announced plans this month for a Middle East studies major with no small measure of pride. The program represents a first for Florida, according to FSU, and a plunge into one of academia's timeliest subjects.
And one of its touchiest.
World events are sowing Middle East studies on campuses across the country, but the boom is accompanied by suspicion.
The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the war in Iraq and other developments have sparked student interest in the region, and government and business interest in Middle East experts has made that interest practical. Thanks in part to an increase in federal money for Middle East studies, colleges from Florida to Oregon are hurrying to add classes and faculty in the field.
The University of Central Florida in Orlando launched a Middle East studies minor two years ago. Professors at Florida International University in Miami are proposing a minor in Judaic and Near East studies as soon as next year, and some University of Miami scholars also are envisioning a Mideast minor.
Several Florida universities have added faculty in Middle East studies and related fields, as well as courses on topics such as Arabic for translation and "Women and Politics in the Middle East."
But at the same time, some colleges have found themselves on the defensive in an ideological fight.
Conservative and pro-Israel critics contend on the Web and newspaper pages that some Middle East-studies professors and programs promote anti-American and, sometimes, outright terrorist agendas. The much-mentioned campus-watch.org, catalogues what its sponsors consider intolerant, extremist and misleading remarks by Middle East scholars, sometimes with their photos.
In response, some federal legislators have proposed an advisory board to monitor what's taught in Middle East and other international studies programs that get federal money. The House OK'd the plan, which supporters described as insuring accountability but universities decried as intruding on academic freedom. The Senate has yet to consider it.
And so goes the dilemma of Middle East studies, as FIU Judaic and Near East studies chief Steven Heine sees it.
"In a way, [9-11] was a big stimulus. But in a way, because of all the controversy, it's kind of an impediment," he says. "It kind of polarizes people, but everybody does acknowledge we need more understanding of it."
Teacher in turmoil
Understanding was what Boca Raton-based Florida Atlantic University hoped to gain from Mustafa Abu Sway, an American-educated professor at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem.
With the backing of the federal Fulbright scholarship program, Abu Sway arrived last summer to teach for a year at FAU's Honors College in Jupiter. College chief William Mech predicted "our students, our faculty and the community will all benefit from this experience."
Three months later, a New York Post column identified Abu Sway as an activist tied to the Palestinian group Hamas. The State Department has labeled it a terrorist organization.
The column's lead author was Daniel Pipes, the Harvard-educated historian and former Fulbright board chairman behind campus-watch.org. He said his information came from the Israeli government, including a letter from an Israeli Consulate official in Miami.
Abu Sway denied any links to terrorist groups. The State Department said it found no evidence he did. And FAU said it would leave the matter to the State Department.
Abu Sway couldn't be reached late this week. He finished his year at FAU this spring, and colleagues and students were "sorry to see him go," said Jupiter campus chief Kristen Murtagh.
"I think the way Dr. Abu Sway handled [the allegation], and I think the way FAU handled it, was the right way," she says.
Pipes says just the opposite. To him, FAU's decision to defer to authorities displayed "a kind of passivity that I think is reprehensible."
It took almost a decade, Pipes notes, for the government to make up its mind about University of South Florida computer science professor Sami Al-Arian. Al-Arian was charged in 2002 with 50 counts of terrorism-related racketeering, having been on authorities' radar since at least 1995. He denies the charges.
Pipes knows that what he calls a watchdog, others call a witch hunt. But what his critics call defending free expression, he simply calls defensiveness.
"I feel like I'm a kind of Consumer Reports for this issue," he says. " ... I'm making people aware of the problems that exist."
Bent on change
Jamie Kozisek would like to do the same, in her way. Already finished with a communications major at FSU, she's staying an extra year to add a second major in Middle East studies, which is to be launched this fall. She hopes the combination might land her a job as a Middle East correspondent.
"I think there's a very big misrepresentation of Arabs in the U.S., and I'd like to do something about it," explains Kozisek, 21, the Tampa-born daughter of a Czech mother and a Palestinian father who left the family during her infancy. "... In the news here, [Arab culture] is portrayed as so hostile and so cold."
In Orlando, French-born University of Central Florida student Aurélie Siou-Saavedra said she thinks Arabs also are misunderstood in her homeland, where anti-immigrant sentiment has at times been directed toward a large North African population. She says studying the Middle East from the vantage point of the United States has opened her mind, and she's considering completing UCF's Middle East studies minor.
"[Studying the Middle East] will give me very valuable information when it comes to what's going on in the world right now," says Siou-Saavedra, 29.
Many Middle East studies professors say they strive for balance in presenting their subject.
They're not the only ones grappling with geopolitics in the classroom.
At a conference in Cairo this winter, a group of Arab academics fretted about how to teach students about a controversial topic: the United States.