Author: Ian Mariani
After last winter’s Arab Spring, it became clear that the Middle East was a region that would not stand to be ignored any longer. As unprecedented political events developed in the region, a joke circulated on campus that classes such as Introduction to Islam and International Relations of the Middle East had torn up their syllabuses to instead watch history unfold in front of them. This wave of seismic changes inspired students Gillian Harger (sophomore) and Annika Awbrey (sophomore) to explore the possibility of creating a minor in Middle Eastern Studies.
“It just seems that with everything going on in the Middle East right now, the college’s international scope and the huge D.W.A. major, there should be an academic program that involves the area,” Harger said.
Harger and Awbrey had been toying with the idea before deciding to team up in a substantial push to add the minor to the course catalog.
“I had already been thinking of creating my own major as Middle Eastern Studies,” Awbrey said. “I got a text from Gillian that said she was interested in creating a minor too.”
At first, the idea centered around the Arabic language courses offered on campus.
“It is important to have the language because with everything going on in the region right now, speaking Arabic is a very marketable skill and really rounds out the requirements,” Harger said. After consultation with Arabic professors and more thought, the students decided to expand the proposed minor beyond simply the language.
“I think its extremely important to learn the language in order to further understand the culture,” Awbrey said. “But for this minor, I think it would be good to add classes on the Middle Eastern culture and religions, such as Professor Malek’s classes Introduction to Islam and Islamic Political Thought classes would be a great addition to the minor, as well as the language classes.”
After consulting with one another, the two approached D.W.A. department chair and Middle Eastern scholar Professor Anthony Chase with the idea.
Professor Chase stressed the importance of the college offering a wider spectrum of courses on the Middle East before moving ahead with the procedures of formally creating the program.
“It’s a terrific idea. We obviously want to expand options as much as possible for students,” Chase said. “I don’t think there’s any issue of it in principle, it’s just a matter of making sure there’s a critical mass of classes.”
The D.W.A. department has already moved to expand the course offerings in these areas.
“We’re starting with the hire of Huss Banai, who will be here next year,” Chase said. “He specializes in the politics of Iran and the Middle East, but he also focuses on—like most D.W.A. professors—not just this one region but also subjects like democratization and international relations.”
Banai, currently a research associate at the Center for International Studies at MIT, is serving out a fellowship at the Political Theory Project at Brown University before making the move to Los Angeles.
Chase said he believed that the hiring of Banai was the first step in the process, according to Harger and Awbrey.
“I think we would certainly wait until Banai is here before we begin to think about having a critical mass of professors. We would also probably need to hire another professor before we could offer a substantial academic program,” Chase said.
Chase stressed that the minor isn’t something to be expected in the immediate future.
“It’s really preliminary,” Chase said. “There really haven’t been any substantial discussions.”
The college has recently added new academic programs, including a Latino/a and Latin American Studies major, announced in July, and a Computer Science minor that is not currently listed on the website. The development of these programs took a lot of time.
This has not stopped Awbrey and Harger from presenting their idea to the campus.
“There is a surprising amount of interest in it,” Harger said. “About six or seven people have come up to me wanting to do it — and that’s without even making announcements yet or publicizing it. Once it solidifies more and we have more details on requirements and classes, I would expect many more people to become involved.”
Although the creation of the program isn’t being seriously considered yet, Chase seems to suggest that the state of current affairs and the hiring of Banai have generated enough interest in the program to lead to serious consideration further down the line.
“I don’t think there’s any opposition to the notion that it’s really a critically important part of the world,” Chase said. “It would just be a matter of talking to a number of departments.”
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