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US Students Interest in Islam Surges - 2002-11-13

Many things have changed in America since the events of September 11, 2001. People are no longer free to follow their friends and loved ones to departure gates at airports. Thousands of Americans now walk through metal detectors every day when they arrive at work. And the terrace in front of the U.S. Capitol building, where people used to go to gaze out over the National Mall and its famous monuments, is now closed. But not all of the changes have been about restrictions. Indeed, as part of VOA's series on religion in America, Maura Farrelly reports that some Americans are seizing the opportunity to expand their horizons, by learning about Islam and Arabic culture.

It's a Tuesday afternoon at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. One by one, students are filing into Maysam al Faruqi's introductory class on Islam. Professor Faruqi is a part of the university's theology department, and her course approaches the religion from that perspective. She's here to teach her students about Islam's core beliefs. She is not here to talk about terrorism.

"See, you can live in an unjust society. You can have your country taken away from you. You can end up in a refugee camp in your own homeland, where you have no rights whatsoever. And you can fall into despair," she tells her students.

"But if you also, on top of all of this, because you're so angry, and nothing matters anymore, you end up committing truly evil acts, in terms of killing or whatever it is, then there is even less for you to look forward to."

But as Professor Faruqi discusses the sin of despair, and what the Koran says about it, it's clear that current events do have an influence on her lectures. Maysam al Faruqi has been teaching her course at Georgetown for 12 years now. It's always been a popular course among the full-time students, who are required by the school's Roman Catholic administrators to take at least two semesters of theology. But Professor Faruqi says since September 11, the number of working adults who want to take her evening class has skyrocketed.

She says she's noticed a change among all her students in the misconceptions they bring to her class. Maysam al Faruqi says students used to talk a lot about camels and Bedouins and Lawrence of Arabia. "And then slowly, but surely, there was a shift," said Professor Faruqi. "More and more, the concepts were about terrorism, subversions of women. And especially acts of violence associated with a religion."

Maysam al Faruqi said this shift was firmly in place well before September 11, 2001. She suggested the change had a lot to do with the American media and its need to highlight a new enemy after the fall of Communism in the early 1990s. But Professor Faruqi said that lately, she's noticed her students are more aware of their ignorance about Islam, and many are more willing to give up their misconceptions. That's why 19-year-old Anna Valeo igned up for the class.

"I wanted to understand the roots of Islam," said the student. "I wanted to understand Islam as a religion, not as what I see fed to me on the news, but as a faith. Just like Christianity. I lost somebody close to me on the 11th, and I feel like we were all kind of woken up to other religions in the world."

Still, Anna Valeo says when she sits in Maysam al Faruqi's class, it's impossible not to think about the words and images coming across in the American media. "This notion of 'din al fitrah,' which is really core to your understanding of Islam, that each human is intrinsically hard-wired with the capability to discern between 'good' and 'evil.' I mean, obviously, those catch-phrases of 'good' and 'evil' we've heard before from our president," referring to the U.S. leader, George W. Bush, who has spoken of an "axis of evil." "So you can't help but make that connection," continued Ms. Valeo. "But I think more than anything, those are sound bites that are fed to us, that make those links in our heads."

Anna Valeo and her peers at Georgetown aren't the only students expressing an increased interest is Islamic theology and culture. Professors at many schools, such as Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Miami University in Ohio, say their courses on Islam are filled to capacity and that they're still being asked to deliver special lectures, more than a year after the attacks. At the University of Georgia, enrollment in Arabic language courses is at a record high. Professor Alan Godlas says this isn't because students are reacting against what they've heard in the media. Rather, they're responding to the media's message.

"Students were aware of the need for translators, the need for people in various positions in the government and in the media who knew Arabic," he said. "Because one of the problems that was constantly reported in the media, was that there were not enough translations of reports prior to [the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon], and if we had had those reports, for example, it's possible that the events of 9-11 might have been averted."

But for every non-Islamic American studying Islam or Arabic, there are dozens of others who aren't. Yet historians say what's striking about September 11 is that Americans as a whole have not responded to that day the way their grandparents' generation did to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, forcing thousands of Japanese-Americans to live in internment camps. According to 21-year-old Bob Dahlhide, a student in Maysam al Farqui's class, that's because Americans have learned from that period in history. He says even if they aren't making a formal effort to learn about Islam, most do have a broader understanding of what it is to be an Americana definition that includes being Muslim.

"This problem is a problem of identity, which America has faced since the Revolutionary War," said Mr. Dahlhide, referring to the war more than two centuries ago that won the American colonies freedom from British rule. "I mean, we had people that weren't sure if their loyalty was with the colonies, the new United States, or with Britain. And some people moved to Canada, some people went back to the United Kingdom. As a nation of immigrants, it's a nation with conflicted loyalties. And I think now, it's definitely a more enlightened manner of discerning where those loyalties lie."

And in the spirit of that enlightenment, Bob Dahlhide, Anna Valeo and other students just like them are reaching out to their Muslim countrymen by studying the faith of Islam.