Hoover Institution fellows Peter Berkowitz and Michael McFaul published an Op-Ed in The Washington Post on April 12 raising concerns about the lack of faculty and courses specializing in Islamic studies at American universities.
They cited two major reasons for the need to strengthen this academic field — Islam is the second largest religion in the world, and experts in the field are an asset to national security.
"Our declared enemy Al Qaeda and other Muslim extremists find in Islam justifications for their murderous hatred of us," Berkowitz said in an interview with The Daily. "We need to understand the religious grounds of the war they are waging against us much better. Also, we need to understand Islam better to pursue peace."
Islamic studies programs encompass a number of topics including the Koran, the history and culture of people who profess Islam and the regions where they live. Berkowitz also emphasized the importance of studying languages, especially Arabic.
"In general, we think that language is the key to understanding people and their way of life," Berkowitz said.
When it comes to funding such studies, Berkowitz pointed to government resources, private foundations and the universities themselves.
"In many cases, elite universities have large endowments," Berkowitz said. "If there is a will, universities can invest more resources in this area."
Stanford, for instance, received a $9 million endowment in the fall of 2003 to fund a program and professorship in Islamic studies. The University was able to create the Sohaib and Sara Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies within the Religious Studies Department.
According to Robert Gregg, professor of religious studies and acting director of a committee on Islamic studies at Stanford, the funds have so far been used for supporting courses, sponsoring lecture and seminar series and conducting faculty searches and recruitment.
"The primary element in strengthening Islamic studies involves the hiring of experts in the field — scholars of national and international prominence who will join others at Stanford who teach in this area," Gregg said. "We have not had an Islamicist in the Religious Studies Department, and early planning led to a decision to attempt to recruit a faculty member in that academic discipline."
Meanwhile, sophomore Omar Shakir, co-president for the Coalition for Justice in the Middle East and treasurer of the Muslim Students Awareness Network, voiced concern over the inability of the current Islamic studies curriculum to meet student demands.
"There is no ‘Introduction to Islam' offered by the University," Shakir said. "The demand for classes is unbelievable," adding that the first meeting of ‘Islam in the West' attracted several times more than the enrollment limit. Timur Kuran, a visiting professor of economics, agreed that there is considerable student interest in a comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach to Islamic studies. During his time at Stanford, he has taught the course "Economic History and Modernization of the Islamic Middle East," which drew 130 students.
"Since the beginning of the year both undergraduate and graduate students from several of the social sciences have been coming to see me for advice on projects related to the Middle East," Kuran said.
One change that may address the problem comes from the Introduction to the Humanities, or I-HUM, program, which will be offering a winter-spring course sequence called "Worlds of Islam: Global History and Muslim Societies," said Ellen Woods, associate director of the I-HUM Program.
The course description promises "a chronological and geographical overview of a broad range of times and places in which Islam has been the dominant cultural framework." It will also cover the basic elements of the Muslim faith and the related political, social and cultural practices.
Woods anticipates that this course will draw more than 100 students and noted that the I-HUM winter-spring course sequence "Approaching Religion" also considers Islam alongside the study of Judaism and Buddhism.
"By including two different disciplinary approaches to Islamic Studies among the eleven I-HUM winter-spring course sequences, we acknowledge the wide range of student interests in Islam, from the political to the personal, and hope to encourage dialogue among students and faculty exploring these different points of view," Woods said.
Berkowitz agreed that this is a step in the right direction, adding that the new I-HUM course will expose students across the academic spectrum to information they otherwise would not have learned.
"The main improvement I recommend is incorporating the study of Islam and the wider Middle East into conventional disciplines and departments — history, literature, political science, economics and so on," Berkowitz said. "This will provide a check against politicization and intellectual ghettoization at the university, and will promote truly interdisciplinary conversation."
Kuran also supported the comprehensive approach to the study of Islam, especially at Stanford.
"Among other major universities, Princeton, Harvard, Berkeley and Chicago have long had Middle East Studies departments," Kuran said. "Their course offerings happen to be concentrated, however, in the humanities. Under the circumstances, Stanford has an opportunity to become a major player in the field by offering something unique, namely, a program that is grounded in both the humanities and the social sciences."