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
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
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
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
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
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.”