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A Greater Understanding

The new Understanding Contemporary Islam program puts AUB’s institutional mission into action by sending academics from the Islamic world to US universities and colleges as visiting fellows to teach and serve as a resource on Islam and life in contemporary Muslim societies. MainGate learns more about this unique outreach endeavor.

The catastrophic events of September 11, 2001 changed the world forever, underscoring the gulf existing between the West and the Islamic world,
particularly in the United States. In the days and months that followed, many people in the US began to associate Islam with the
horrific acts of the terrorists and developed
a growing misperception that it is a religion that espouses violence. The media contributed by broadcasting news segments with titles like, “Why do they hate us?” showing images that portrayed all Muslims as religious radicals, thereby furthering negative stereotypes. Education, it seemed, would be the key to eradicating these misconceptions. However, a considerable number of universities in the US lacked strong Islamic studies programs, courses, or even scholars.
The existence of much misinformation and lack of intercultural communication about Islam in the US was apparent and AUB responded quickly. In keeping with its mission and tradition, the University moved to bridge the gap between East and West, between the West and Islam, by launching a visiting fellows program: the Understanding Contemporary Islam program (UCI). First proposed in November 2001 at the suggestion of Dr. Herant Katchadourian, who had just joined the AUB Board of Trustees, the program aims to promote “mutual understanding between peoples of the Muslim world and the West.”

To achieve this aim, the UCI program will place scholars from higher educational institutions from all over the Islamic world in US colleges and universities for periods ranging between two weeks to an entire semester or academic year. Scholars visiting the United States will teach one to two classes at a university or college, serve as a resource for the host institutions and other groups and organizations in the region, and encourage the host institutions to develop their own capacity in the area of Islamic studies.

“The essential purpose of the program is to provide a greater opportunity for Americans to learn more about Islam from individuals who are well qualified to speak about it,” explains AUB Trustee and alumnus Herant Katchadourian (BA ’54, MD ’58), who was the major force in securing funding for the program. Soon after 9/11, Katchadouraian, who is professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, human biology, and education (by courtesy) at Stanford University, alerted AUB President John Waterbury to the interest of several major foundations in providing funding for new, innovative programs which would fill the void of academic courses on Islam and the Muslim world that exists in some US higher educational institutions and said that AUB was a “natural” to take the lead in initiating such an outreach endeavor. Katchadourian and Waterbury then had several meeting with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The Hewlett Foundation took the lead in committing a substantial grant to the program, and the other foundations followed suit with significant funding to start the UCI program.

For Dr. Katchadourian, the launching of this
outreach program could not be more opportune—or necessary. “I think the current
political situation (in Iraq and the region), if anything, should make this program even more timely than it was before. One of the emerging expectations in the US—both on the part of the government as well as, one would hope, a larger segment of the population—is that Americans need to be better informed about the Middle East or about the Islamic world. The UCI program has the particular merit of bringing experts from the Islamic regions of the world to present their own perspectives, based on greater personal knowledge and engagement.”

Heading up the program as director is Dr. Abdul-Hamid Hallab, special adviser to AUB President John Waterbury and who also serves as special adviser for higher education to the Ruler of Sharjah. The Steering Committee, consisting of President Waterbury, Provost Peter Heath, and Dr. Hallab, will identify suitable visiting scholars with the assistance of a selection committee composed of Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian scholar widely published in the area of cross-cultural encounters who is currently consulting director of the Middle East Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; AUB graduate and International Advisory Council Member Dr. Ali Fakhro, who has served as Bahrain’s ambassador to France, Spain, Belgium, and Switzerland, as well as its minister of health and education, and as a member of the Bahraini national assembly, and has served on the boards of many international agencies such as the World Health Organization and the Arab Thought Forum; Professor Tarif Khalidi, who was until fall 2002 Sir Thomas Adams’ Professor of Arabic and
fellow at Cambridge and is now the Shaykh Zayid Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at AUB; and Professor Yahya Sadowski, recently with Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and currently associate professor in the Department of Political Studies and Public Administration at AUB.

Dr. Hallab and AUB’s representative in Washington, DC, William Hoffman, have already visited a sampling of prospective target universities and colleges in Arizona, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Kentucky, and have established a list of institutions ready to participate in the fellowship program. Enthusiastic responses have come from five Colorado universities, including Regis University, the University of Colorado, and the United States Air Force Academy. The Pima Community College System in Arizona, the University of Arizona, and the University of Louisville, Kentucky, showed keen interest, as did the University of Wisconsin at both Milwaukee and Madison, and the University of Wyoming.


The responses “went beyond our expectations,” Hoffman and Hallab reported. The universities visited “were very thirsty to have scholars involved,” Hallab noted, and many are ready to provide transportation and housing for the visiting fellows.

In selecting the scholars and matching them
to interested US institutions, the Selection Committee will give special attention to the candidate’s demonstrated expertise in the area of Islamic studies, availability, and fluency in English. Another important consideration will be the scholar’s ability to affably field questions and diplomatically contend with any hostile situations that may arise.

Interaction with the community is a key component of the fellow’s function, and his or her activities will not be restricted to the host institution. The scholars “will go into civic clubs and churches in addition to teaching courses at the university,” Hallab said, noting that the universities involved have been receiving numerous requests for speakers, requests they cannot at present fill.

The UCI office in Beirut will serve as a resource and clearinghouse and will offer
orientation workshops for scholars en route
to the United States. Concentrating on the recruitment and selection of fellows, the task of the office will be to match appropriate scholars with suitable US institutions.

AUB has already received 80 positive replies from scholars canvassed. “We have heard from scholars all the way from Indonesia to Morocco, noted Islamic scholars...Plus we will be tapping our own [AUB] scholars,” Hallab said. Several distinguished scholars have expressed interest in participating in the program, including Ali M. Fakhro; Zafar Ishaq Ansari, director general of the Islamic Research Institute of the International Islamic University in Pakistan; Clovis Maksoud, director of the Institute of the Global South at the American University in Washington, DC; and Muna Saddiqui, head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Glasgow.

Dr. Hallab hopes the program will begin in the fall of 2003 with the placement of four to six fellows in US institutions. Eventually, as the program develops, the goal is to send 12-15 fellows per year on a short-term basis and five fellows per year on a long-term basis (one semester). AUB scholars already slated to begin in October 2003 are Nizar Hamzeh and Ahmad Mousalli of the Department of Political Studies and Public Administration. Professor Vahid Behmardi of the Department of Arabic and Near Eastern Languages will begin in the spring of 2003-04.

The Institute of International Education’s Council for International Exchange of Scholars (CIES) will work closely with AUB to provide support for the program in the United States by advertising and promoting the program, dealing with visa arrangements, handling logistics of host institution arrangements, and providing back-up services for the fellows after their arrival in the United States.

Asked about the future of the program, Dr. Hallab said, “We would like to plant a seed” which will have a multiplier effect. “AUB cannot start to fill in the gap in all of the United States. But we can do patchwork in various sectors. I am hoping that those universities that do not have Arabic and Islamic programs will see their value and build programs of their own.”
In answer to questions about the possibility of bringing American/Western students and scholars to AUB and the Middle East, Hallab explained that such an exchange is not within the present scope of the program. “But,” he said, “it is in our thoughts and we hope that in the future we can do that,” he would like to see the program eventually encourage teachers, journalists, and the media to come to the Middle East to learn first-hand about Islamic culture.

Dr. Katchadourian firmly believes that AUB is ideally positioned to play a pivotal role in the program, “On the one hand, the University has the necessary contacts and the experts in the region, and on the other hand, AUB’s leadership is well acquainted with the nature of American institutions of higher learning and is able to bring about the best possible match between the two. It is but one example of how AUB functions as a bridge between East and West.”