Mohammad Khalil has long been the director of the Muslim studies program at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, but these days he’s also a myth buster. Khalil, both in and out of class, tries to help his students separate fact from fiction in the ongoing public discourse about Islam.
The Quran tells people to kill nonbelievers? False. Radicalization has nothing to do with religion? Not exactly. The Islamic State group represents all Muslims? Definitely not.
Those questions and others have been cropping up more often in recent months as anti-Muslim sentiment has peaked in the United States after Islamic State group, aka ISIS, supporters were linked to high-profile terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. Khalil and other university professors specializing in Arabic, Islam and Middle Eastern studies said they’ve seen increasing numbers of college students on different academic tracks taking their courses over the past year out of both curiosity and career preparation. They said young people, driven by international news and political conversation, seem to be realizing the importance of a global education, and their classes are more relevant than ever as students attempt to understand Islam’s past and future.
“When I look at the rosters, I’m seeing more criminal justice students, but also a more diverse student population. I’m seeing music majors, students majoring in biology — just a wide variety,” Khalil said. “People, they want to know what’s going on.”
Arabic studies have had a tumultuous few years as the U.S. post-9/11 involvement in the Middle East developed. From 2002 to 2006, enrollment in Arabic language classes increased by more than 120 percent. Then from 2006 to 2009, it rose 46 percent more, according to data from the Modern Language Association. Through 2013, however, it fell by 7.5 percent. Meanwhile, at least nine major postsecondary institutions added Islamic studies programs from 2001 to 2009.
After ISIS began gathering serious strength in 2014, Khalil’s first indication that attention was shifting on campus appeared in his email inbox. Alumni he hadn’t heard from in five years suddenly wrote to him to ask questions about the news.
Current students showed increased interest, as well. Michigan State offers a specialization in Muslim studies that requires two years of a foreign language like Arabic, Turkish and Persian, and five courses with Islamic content. Options over the years have included “The Middle East: The Ottoman Empire,” “Islam and World Politics” and “Politics of Asia.”
“People feel a need to be educated on the topic of Islam and Muslims,” Khalil said. “For some people, it's almost like a prerequisite ... to thrive in their respective fields.”
Career opportunities were certainly a factor in Tommy Collison’s decision to double-major in journalism and Middle East studies at New York University in New York City. Collison, 21, who is from Ireland, said he was initially pursuing a general political science degree along with journalism but realized “it would be both interesting and a professional advantage to speak Arabic.”
“I wanted to specialize in an area that was going to be of relevance for the 70-, 80-odd years my career is,” he said. “America’s proximity to the Middle East is not going anywhere.”
Current events keep the curriculum fresh, he said. Although many of the topics were likely the same as in previous semesters, the constant developments overseas have provided recent examples for class discussions.
“We still have to learn Arabic. We still have to learn who founded these countries, what was Turkey's journey from when it was part of Ottoman Empire to when it's a republic today,” he said. But “in the questions people bring up, it's now focused on Paris, on ISIS, on Saudi Arabia,” Collison added.
Collison isn't alone in his strategic decision to study the Middle East. Robert Crews, the director of the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University in Stanford, California, said he saw his largest enrollment ever this semester in his course “The Islamic Republics: Politics and Society in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.” More than 60 students showed up for the first lecture Tuesday, their majors ranging from humanities to computer science.
“What's driving that is not ISIS narrowly but an awareness that Islam is playing a greater role in global affairs,” Crews said. “These students want to develop a vocabulary in order to understand it and analyze it.”
Enrollment in Arabic has also slightly increased recently at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where Assyriology professor Eckart Frahm said he's spoken on multiple well-attended panels about ancient and modern culture in the Middle East. And in Washington, Jonathan Brown, the Alwaleed bin Talal chair of Islamic Civilization in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, said the student body there has a naturally strong interest in national security due to the campus’ location.
RJ Khalaf, 19, a New York University sophomore, is a global liberal studies major who chose to study Arabic. He said it’s not only the language of his Muslim ancestors but also the one commonly used by the people he hopes to reach in his eventual line of work.
“I envision that my future is in the Middle East dealing with these different issues that arise,” Khalaf said. “If you’re able to speak Arabic, you’re able to at least converse with the locals.”
Even on campuses where enrollment in Islamic studies programs has remained steady, the discourse surrounding Islam and ISIS has changed. Khalaf mentioned the topic of ISIS has come up in his science classes. Omid Safi, the director of the Duke University Islamic Studies Center in Durham, North Carolina, said whereas previously the field leaned more toward humanities, now it’s expanding into politics and economics.
Awareness of the importance of Islamic education is more important than ever in Mustafa Umar’s opinion. The director of academic affairs at the College of Islamic Studies, which is based online and in Anaheim, California, said his goal is to eradicate the so-called imam Google where “whatever comes up, that's what you start learning.” This process almost always ends up spreading misinformation and can sometimes lead to radicalization, he added.
As Umar teaches, he said he tries to be clear on what tenets appear in the Quran. By process of elimination, students then see what’s not in the holy book and therefore not justified under Islamic law — no matter what extremists say. Umar said students are often surprised, which further motivates him to disseminate the truth.
“People are talking so much about what Islam doesn't teach and skewing teachings of Islam’s certain extremist groups,” he said. “Why not prepare people with good, core foundational knowledge?”