When Will Smith needed a crash course in Islam to play Muslim prizefighter Muhammad Ali in the 2001 film "Ali," he turned to the Center for Near Eastern Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. Munir Shaikh, a Ph.D. candidate there, took on the job of instructing the actor after film director Michael Mann promised Smith that "he would get to the point where he understood Islam from the inside," Shaikh says.
Mann knew that if his film biography were to show respect for its subject, it would have to show respect for the religion Muhammad Ali embraced in 1964. That meant Will Smith would have to reach beyond the Muslim boxer's external behavior and come to some understanding of the faith in his heart. So Shaikh not only taught the actor how to perform the physical postures of Muslim prayers and to recite them in Arabic, but also taught him the principles of Islam. "He was very interested in understanding the meaning behind the religious acts," says Shaikh, "things like the value of fasting during Ramadan in terms of curbing one's ego and one's desires."
Shaikh's role on the set of "Ali" is one-somewhat unusual-part of a fabric of formal education, scholarly research and public outreach being woven by a group of 15 Middle East area-studies centers partly funded by the federal government under Title VI of the Higher Education Act and the Fulbright-Hays International Studies Program. The centers, located on university campuses across America, focus on a region that, traditionally defined, stretches from Morocco in the west to Iran and Turkey in the east-but which lately has also come to include countries with Muslim populations in Central Asia and the former Soviet Union. Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, these centers have found their services more in demand than ever.
In a sign of their importance, Congress hiked their funding in late 2001 by 26 percent-from $78 million to $98.5 million-along with that of 28 area-studies institutes focusing on other regions. Congress also doubled to 130 the number of one-year Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowships for the Middle East studies centers, and increased their value from $21,000 to $25,000 each. The number of summer fellowships rose from 41 to 73.
"An urgent need exists," said the congressional conference committee that finalized the appropriations act, "to enhance the nation's in-depth knowledge of world areas and transnational issues, and [the] fluency of U.S. citizens in languages relevant to understanding societies where Islamic and/or Muslim culture, politics, religion and economy are a significant factor." The appropriations act included $1.5 million in supplemental awards for existing Title VI Middle East studies centers, provisions to establish four new area-studies centers and $1 million for three new language-training centers at US universities, including one for Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish and Persian at Brigham Young University.
"We learned from 9/11 that there's a shortage of people trained in Middle Eastern and Central Asian languages, and that there are not enough people with this expertise working for the government. Across the spectrum, we very badly need specialists trained with these language skills," said Congressman David Obey of Wisconsin, a leader of the campaign to increase center funding.
"We also learned...that the world is very much an interconnected place, and that America's two oceans no longer insulate us from events across the globe," he added. "We need more understanding of the Middle East, its cultures and the issues facing the region. Area-studies centers do more than just teach languages: They help people develop a greater understanding across cultures, and that is critically important in resolving the immediate crisis and in developing long-term solutions."
America's Middle East studies centers are no overnight phenomenon. Indeed, they have roots running back to 1640, when Harvard established a Semitic language chair, as a tool to further Biblical studies, just four years after the college was founded. In the 1660's, Arabic was added to Hebrew, Chaldaic and Syriac. In the 18th and 19th centuries, studies of the Middle East took root at schools such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Pennsylvania, Berkeley and Chicago, focused mainly on philology, the study of ancient languages and literary texts.
Princeton broke new ground in the 1920's when it established a Department of Oriental Languages and Literature and hired Philip Hitti from the American University of Beirut. He organized special summer programs offering courses in the culture, history and languages of the Middle East.
But the real push to build modern Middle East studies centers began after World War II when "the US was catapulted onto the world scene and all sorts of areas, including the Middle East, became strategically important" in the ensuing Cold War, explains John Woods, a historian who heads the University of Chicago's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. "The idea was to create cadres of people informed about these parts of the world" to build the skills required to understand the region.
That work continues today, in a new geopolitical era. In broadest terms, the centers' job is to provide a firm foundation for professors, students and the public to build their knowledge of the Middle East. Notably, however, most centers do not have their own faculty or offer their own courses. Rather, they serve as umbrella organizations for faculty and students with expertise in, or curiosity about, the region.
The Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, for example, is a base for some 60 affiliated faculty members "teaching everything from 'The Politics of Middle East Oil' to 'Middle Eastern Carpets,'" says director Abraham Marcus, a Middle Eastern historian who chairs the university's Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures. What ties the professors together is "a passion for the region," he explains. This love may arise from a stint in the Peace Corps in Tunisia, as for associate director Keith Walters, an associate professor in linguistics, or, as in Marcus's case, from the fact that his family came from Aleppo, Syria.
Some centers, like those at Harvard and the universities of Chicago and Arizona, administer degrees with or through academic departments. Others, like Georgetown and Texas, offer their own degrees. To meet the needs of students with specific cross-disciplinary interests, some centers also sponsor joint Middle Eastern studies graduate degrees in cooperation with schools of business, law or public policy.
Historical papers from Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies highlight the forces that propelled the development of today's centers. History professor Richard Frye, associate director of the center when it opened in 1954, writes that the American Council of Learned Society's Committee on Near Eastern Studies received an "ultimatum" from the Rockefeller Foundation, a key higher-education funding agency, in 1948. It told the committee members—all of them university professors-that they "would have to change their departments from Semitic languages to expand into more contemporary matters of the entire area."
Scholars from schools including Harvard and Columbia balked, but a University of Chicago specialist in the Elamite languages of ancient Iran accepted an invitation from the University of Michigan at mid-century to head "the first center for Middle Eastern studies in the United States," writes Frye. Harvard opened its Middle East center after establishing two other area institutes—for Russia and East Asia—all under the direction of historian William R. Langar.
In his unpublished autobiography, Langar notes that he'd long been a proponent of multidisciplinary area studies, a view that was buttressed by his experience in the Research and Analysis (R&A) group of the Office of Strategic Services in World War II, where "historians might rub elbows with economists, anthropologists, writers, politicians and scientists" doing country studies. After the war, the Carnegie Foundation-another major supporter of American educational endeavors-asked if R&A's integrated approach to area studies "might not be introduced in our universities," Langar writes, and he pushed that philosophy forward at Harvard.
However, it took the shock of the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik in 1957, and Congress's subsequent declaration of a "national educational emergency," to swing the government four-square behind area studies. Title VI of the 1958 National Defense Education Act appropriated $8 million a year to contract with colleges and universities to "establish institutes to teach modern foreign languages" of strategically important areas that were not available elsewhere. It also directed the institutes to teach related subjects, including the history, economics and geography of those areas.
Middle East studies centers at the University of Michigan, Princeton University and Harvard University qualified for funding in 1959-1960, and schools including the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Utah and the University of California at Los Angeles came on board in 1960-1961. In 1965, Title VI became part of the Higher Education Act. Today, the Title VI roster also includes New York University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California at Berkeley, Georgetown University, Ohio State University, the University of Arizona, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Chicago, the University of Washington and Emory University. In addition, a half-dozen Middle East centers, and a number of universities with Middle Eastern studies departments or a sprinkling of Middle East specialists, operate without Title VI funding.
Emory, Ohio State and Arizona have undergraduate-focused Middle East studies centers; the rest are "comprehensive" institutes with broader graduate programs. Centers compete every three years to renew their Title VI status.
Last fall, I visited the centers at Harvard, Georgetown, Texas, Arizona, Chicago, UCLA and Berkeley to discover how they are working to meet spiraling enrollment and fast-growing public interest, and how they are responding to those who fault center academics for failing to foresee the attacks of September 11, 2001.
"We cultivate what we feel is a deeper understanding of the Middle East rather than a focus on current affairs," explains Cemal Kafadar, director of Harvard's Center for Middle East Studies. The center oversees a master's degree program for around 20 students; affiliated faculty supervise some 60 Ph.D. candidates. The center also sponsors or participates in an array of initiatives on contemporary topics, ranging from the Arab Education Forum, which is developing "imaginative ways of teaching in Arab secondary schools," to a project with the Harvard Business School and Law School to study Islamic investment practices. They also include forums featuring experts from government, business and universities in America and the Middle East, as well as an extensive educational outreach effort for the general public. (See "Beyond the Ivory Tower," page 7.)
"We encourage students to look at art and archeology, at the medieval Middle East, at the 18th century of Bosnia-a range of subjects and periods-to make sense of what is going on now," Kafadar says. But he rejects the idea that the center can be a crystal ball. "The main activity here is teaching and research. This is not an occupation where people are trained to have predictive powers," he says.
Anne Betteridge, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson, says scholars offer valuable insights into the region, but agrees they can't be held accountable for events, good or bad. "Our job is to provide some level of understanding and a solid education in Middle East studies," she explains. "Academics tend each to work in their own field of expertise—historians, linguists, social scientists, economists—and the results of their work have to be brought together, like so many threads, to see the pattern."
Betteridge argues that there is a gaping information hole in America when it comes to the Middle East. "I remember studying about ancient Egypt and the cradle of civilization in Mesopotamia in grade school and middle school-and then the Middle East disappeared from my classrooms," she says. "Our job is to fill in that great empty space." Although funded as an undergraduate institute, the Arizona center also assists the work of more than 100 graduate and Ph.D. students. As well as advancing scholarship, Betteridge says, the center has been working with the press and the community at large to make available information about the Middle East.
The center nominated Noah Haidcu-Dale, a graduate student in Near Eastern studies, to serve on a panel of community and university representatives that met with editors of the Arizona Daily Star to discuss balanced coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in part because he's lived and studied in the region. Haidcu-Dale believes he's had an impact, "however small," on coverage of the conflict.
Last December, Arizona's center organized a workshop on the history, politics and culture of the Middle East for 50 Arizona Daily Star reporters and copy editors, at the newspaper's request. "We've developed very good relationships with reporters," says Betteridge. "They often call us about a story."
The center also serves as a resource for Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe. He met with center representatives four times in 2001 and 2002, including "a closed-door meeting to get a sense of what was going on" after September 11, notes Anne Bennett, assistant director.
The University of Chicago has links to the Middle East dating back to the start of Semitic studies in the 1890's and the establishment of its Oriental Institute in 1919 to carry out comprehensive study of the region's past. Local members of the state's delegation to Congress are "honorary members" of the center, says John Woods, director.
"We have information that people need right now, [but] we are not advocates," he emphasizes, noting that the scholar's role is to "present information about the Middle East in ways that people may not have thought of before." The center administers a graduate-degree program enrolling around 20 students, while affiliated faculty members advise approximately 60 doctoral candidates.
Woods says that the geographical limits of the Middle East center's focus are flexible and are expanding in coordination with the university's other area-studies centers. "We collaborate with the Russia-Central Eurasian Center in offering Uzbek," Woods says. "Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union before, but we're increasingly thinking of it as part of the Middle East [and] reaching into the Islamic parts of Central Asia."
Graduates from Middle East studies centers have played—and continue to play—important roles in the region and in America. They include US diplomats such as Brad Hanson and Catherine Sweet (both UCLA) and Susan Ziadeh (Michigan), now serving in Afghanistan, Chad and Jordan, respectively, and Aaron David Miller (Michigan), who completed a 25-year Foreign Service career and is now president of Seeds for Peace, an international non-profit organization. Journalists with Middle East studies center credentials include Linda Gradstein (Georgetown), Jerusalem correspondent for National Public Radio, and Cairo-based photojournalist Thomas Hartwell (Texas), whose work appears in Time, Newsweek and The New York Times. President Bush's special emissary to Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a graduate of the Chicago center; Adnan Mazarei (UCLA) is an economist with the International Monetary Fund; and an advisor to the president of Lebanon studied at the Georgetown University center.
Barbara Stowasser, director of Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS), calls the Middle East "an area of great economic and strategic concern to the United States," but contends that American policymaking is often blinkered. "Unfortunately, there is not much interest in the culture or internal dynamics of the society. The Middle East is looked at from a fairly nationalistic point of view, and that does it a lot of disservice because it's a very rich culture," she says. To help rectify that, the center's goal is to "train a whole new generation of students who are linguistically and culturally literate.
"Without knowing the language, you can't even read the newspapers and are reduced to looking through someone else's filter,...and that filter is too simplistic or prejudiced or both," she notes. "Without knowing the history, you will have no idea how present events are seen by Middle Easterners, who have a much better historical memory than we do. In the Arab world, historical events at the beginning of the 20th century are very much alive and kept alive, but are totally unknown among average Americans."
CCAS is unique because it focuses on the 20th century and the present day in the 22 countries of the Arab world. Some 50 students are enrolled in its master's degree program.
"Rather than being like a museum where you consider past epochs, we want to be up on contemporary issues such as women's rights, human rights and strategies for economic development," explains former CCAS director Michael Hudson, pausing between chairing a forum on Iraq and heading to a meeting with members of the National Security Council. Other focal points include "political reform, democratization, the phenomenon of political Islam, and internal politics and conflicts, including the Gulf War and the war on terrorism," he says.
CCAS affiliates include Georgetown's Institute of Turkish Studies and the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (CMCU). John Esposito, CMCU director, notes that his operation also deals with the non-Arab Muslim world, giving it a broader field than CCAS, located just down the hall. But he makes some of the same points as Stowasser. "[We are] building bridges of understanding," he says, adding that the attacks on September 11 "both complicated and enhanced" that mission.
"Some people have realized that dialogue is important, internationally and inside Europe and America," he says. Some see September 11 as a "validation of the 'clash of civilizations' idea," he notes, referring to Harvard government professor Samuel Huntington's thesis about conflict between the West and Islam. "What we risk is provoking a clash by not understanding what the civilizations are talking about. There are political, economic and social—as well as religious—causes for misunderstanding."
As at other Middle East centers, interest in enrolling at CCAS rose sharply after September 11, due partly to the international spotlight on the region. The increase may also be linked to the lackluster US economy in which some students enroll in graduate studies to avoid a tight job market, says Liz Kepferle, academic programs coordinator. CCAS received around 70 applications for 25 first-year places early in the autumn of 2001, she says. Application requests normally number around 25 for the whole summer, but last summer they poured in at a rate of 25 a week, and 200 applicants are expected for the 2003 class.
September 11 shattered communications barriers inside and outside the university, says Amer Mohsen, a CCAS student from Lebanon: "There was a lot of discussion about the Arab world and foreign policy, and I had to interact more than I expected. More and more people are asking questions about democracy, about the US role in the region, and even about Arabic novels. On the popular level, more and more people see the Arab world as a place of interest, but on the political level it is different."
Samer Shehata, assistant professor of politics at CCAS, recently taught a course called "The United States, the Middle East and Terrorism." "It's important to address topics of national importance," he says. "'Why did September 11 happen' and 'What has been the relationship between the United States and the Middle East?' are questions worthy of discussion."
Shehata has made scores of media appearances to discuss politics and policy in the region. "I think it's incumbent on us academic specialists to participate, to tell people in power how we feel and why we feel that way," he explains. "If people say over and over again that there is a problem and highlight the consequences, eventually they have to listen."
Shehata faults the mainstream media for offering "a sound-bite diet" of news to Americans, noting that CCAS has "tried, significantly," to put critical information before the public. Initiatives include lectures and forums, as well as newspaper op-eds by individual professors. But "our voices were drowned out" by stories "short on substance that were really not full, exhaustive discussions of events," he says.
That view is seconded by Kamran Aghaie, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Aghaie, who teaches undergraduate survey courses like "The Prophet of Islam" or "Introduction to Islam" to more than 100 students at a time, says enrollment has grown by "40 to 50 percent a year" since the 1999-2000 academic year because people are increasingly interested in religion, Islam and the Middle East. But he adds that the media "spend 99 percent of their time covering less than one percent of what the Middle East really is-they cover the sensational, violent stuff. I spend most of my time [in talks to the public] trying to counteract the effect of CNN and Fox News."
Students enrich the educational process at the centers, particularly if they've studied in the Middle East. At Berkeley's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, which advises undergraduates and has some 150 graduate students affiliated with it, Robert O'Neill talks about his insights into events in the region where—while participating in a year-abroad program in Egypt—he got a firsthand look at the Palestinian intifadah. O'Neill, who's majoring in Middle East studies and anthropology, hopes to go to work for the State Department.
The experience "taught me more about humanity than any educational institution could ever hope to," O'Neill says. "You can't really understand what these cultures are like until you're there, on the ground, in that environment, and then everything starts to come to life. Then you see which theories about the Middle East hold true and which begin to erode."
At the University of Texas, as at other university Middle East studies centers, a $30,000 grant from the Alcoa Foundation in the late 1990's supported the establishment of a summer program offered in several countries in the Middle East-in addition to the center's academic-year study-abroad program. In the summer program, students take courses related to their travel in the spring, go abroad for the summer, and then do a research project when they return in the fall. In 2002, 10 UT students journeyed to Turkey and Egypt with two faculty members.
Studying abroad opens students' eyes like nothing else, says Abraham Marcus, center director. "The world ceases to be distant and abstract," he notes. "They get to meet people and they realize that there is a certain shared humanity. At the same time, they notice all the differences... including political systems that may be rather different from our own. They come back and they have something to compare America with. In some ways, they have become wiser about who they are."
Rashid Khalidi, professor of history and languages at the University of Chicago and a former director of its Center for Middle Eastern Studies, puts the argument for foreign study even more strongly. Anyone who hopes to understand the area must have "many years of language training and on-the-spot regional experience," says Khalidi, who now heads the university's Center for International Studies.
Similarly, Leonard Binder, interim director of UCLA's Center for Near Eastern Studies, warns that academics must not isolate themselves from the societies they study. He says that's particularly true for disciplines such as sociology, economics and political science. "Many people teaching in the social sciences have never been to the Middle East and their language skills are weak. We are still in a situation of needing people who are better trained," says Binder, a veteran political scientist himself.
"You need cultural skills to be able to understand what people mean when they talk to you, because it's not always transparent," he says. "We need to listen to Al-Jazeera [satellite television] and read newspapers, but we need much more in terms of people who can work in the area itself. People have to have internships, training experience abroad-practical experience in the region. You have to have this kind of understanding, in good times and bad. Then the good times will be better and the bad times less bad." The UCLA center sponsors undergraduate majors in Middle Eastern and North African studies, and master's and Ph.D. degrees in Islamic studies for around 180 students.
UCLA’s International Institute links all the international activities of the university. Geoff Garret, vice provost and director of the institute, wants to build on area centers' traditional strengths as regional "pillars of knowledge" to support studies of "big, thematic issues that cut across regional boundaries." That is particularly pertinent for the Middle East. "If one asks, 'Where is and what is Islam?' the answer can't be a geographical focus on the Middle East, traditionally defined. The answers don't fit the map the way we've traditionally divided it," he explains.
One project of the International Institute, the Indian Ocean Initiative, would cover the Muslim world from East Africa to Indonesia, using Middle Eastern, South Asian and African area-studies expertise to develop a comprehensive overview of a region whose trade and cultural links date back millennia. Another would link the North African and European sides of the Mediterranean basin "to study the relationship between Muslim immigrants and migrants to France and Africa," says Garret. Such projects illustrate "how one can have area studies as vitally important to your enterprise without excluding other issues that don't easily fit into an area-studies rubric," he explains.
The focus on the Muslim world is widening elsewhere, too. Nezar AlSayyad, chairman of Berkeley's Middle East center, recently co-edited Muslim Europe or Euro-Islam, a book about the changing identity of Europe in an age of globalization. "The Middle East is the only area study that is not really geographically based-it refers to the middle of what, and east of what?" he says. "The center's approach in this regard is very transnational: Any intellectual subject that involves either the Arabs or Islam, contemporarily or historically, is a legitimate subject for scholars to take on."
The Berkeley center is a leader in using Title VI money to add Middle East content to survey courses, such as "History of World Cultures" or "History of Architecture," that are traditionally taught by faculty using only materials from the western world, says AlSayyad. The center has assembled lecture materials and has even provided fellowships for faculty to travel to the Middle East so they could include Middle Eastern content in their teaching. "It was a cultural sea change," he says, and asks, "Why should the study of the Middle East, the Arab world and Islam be 'ghettoized' outside the mainstream curricula?"
New endowments may be paving the way to greater interregional understanding, however. Among major donations, Berkeley received two large gifts in the late 1990's from Saudi benefactors, one for technology-transfer studies and one for Arab studies. The Al-Falah ("Success") Program was established with a $2 million endowment from the Alireza family to support a better understanding of Muslims and to promote technology transfer to the Muslim world, particularly Saudi Arabia. The Sultan Endowment for Arab Studies, established by a $5 million gift from the Sultan ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz Charity Foundation, is dedicated to broadening understanding of the Arab and Islamic worlds. The program's first three-year cycle focused on "Arab Identity"; the second, beginning this year, looks into "Traditions and Transformations in Arab Culture." The center also received a $2 million gift from the Helen Dillar family to establish a Jewish studies program. All the endowments and programs are fully controlled by the center.
At the University of Chicago, where sign-ups for first-year Arabic classes rose from around 20 in 2001 to more than 50 in 2002, four businessmen from Chicago's Arab-American community gave $333,000 for the Ibn Rushd Arabic lectureship. A Turkish-American businessman from Boston gave a similar amount for a Turkish lectureship. Each gift was matched $l-for-$2 by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, boosting their value to $500,000.
Harvard received two major endowments for Arabic lectureships in 2001. One, a $500,000 gift early in the year from Khalid Alturki, a Saudi businessman, was in addition to the $1.5 million he had given to establish the Contemporary Arab Studies Program at the Harvard center. In December, spurred by the events of September 11, alumnus Gordon Gray Jr. gave $1.5 million to the school, most of it for a chair of Arabic language.
Harvard's first-year Arabic enrollment nearly doubled, to 93, between 2001 and 2002, says William Granara, a professor of Arabic, who notes that heightened interest in Arabic and the Muslim world has been a boon for job-hunting scholars. "There are normally two to three [academic] positions in Arabic language and literature in a good year" nationwide, Granara says, but in 2002 he counted 15. Openings for jobs in history and Islamic studies were also well above those of the previous year, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.
If expertise in foreign languages and comprehension of other cultures are the keys to successful interaction and security in today's globally interconnected world, then America's Middle East studies centers are serving critical national and international needs. Today, they are guiding bumper crops of students toward solid futures in fields from statecraft to teaching, linguistics to law and business to humanitarian work. Indeed, the need for well-trained regional specialists is so critical that if they didn't exist, "you'd have to invent them," says Roy Mottahedeh, a professor of history and a former director of Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. The same, certainly, can be said of the centers themselves.
Free-lance writer Arthur Clark is a former staff writer for Saudi Aramco whose byline has appeared in this magazine more than 40 times over the past 20 years.
Washington-based photographer Susana Raab is represented by Aurora & Quanta Productions.