With interest in the Persian Gulf region reaching a feverish pitch around campus last week, Religious Studies Department Chairperson Ann Matter found herself with a lot of explaining to do. "We've been getting calls all week from residence halls, student groups, and community groups, asking if we can recommend someone on this issue to speak, and I can't," Matter said last week. The problem for Matter is that without a standing professor of Islam -- the religion overshadowing much of current events in the Middle East -- she has had to turn away requests for speakers. Matter instead routed callers to visiting lecturer Lynda Clarke, the teacher for the department's only course on Islam this semester, "Introduction to Shi'ite Islam." And having only one class on one of the world's major religion, says Clarke -- who is working on her doctorate while teaching at the University -- is the major flaw with the current Religious Studies Department. "I think the obvious thing is: a Religious Studies Department is not a Religious Studies Department if it does not cover one of the world's three major religions," Clarke said. Faced with budget constraints and hiring limits within the School of Arts and Sciences, the University's small Religious Studies Department has gone for more than five years without a faculty member specializing in the study of Islam since the previous standing professor of Islamic Studies departed for Yale University. The vacancy, criticized by several faculty members this week who say it jeopardizes the University's research reputation in the field, shows signs of eventually being filled -- but only after extensive debate on the purpose, direction, and feasibility of Islamic Studies at the University. Progress has been slow. The Religious Studies Department and the Oriental Studies Department last semester were assigned the joint task of identifying potential candidates, but neither department head has been permitted to contact anyone yet. Associate Dean for the Humanities Stephen Nichols said yesterday that budgetary constraints limit the School of Arts and Science's faculty to 500, and that he hopes one appointment of a professor who concentrates on both Arabic and Islamic studies will satisfy the needs of both departments. "We have a pretty bad budget crisis in the School of Arts and Sciences and we're trying to be creative with this," said Nichols. However, many faculty members said they doubt such a dual appointment would provide sufficient coverage for the Islamic religion or that an Arabic expert would satisfactorily present a religion where, worldwide, only one out of five members are Arabs. Administrators indicated, however, that compromises would have to be made or departments might have to re-examine priorities to determine which fields of study are of greatest importance. "It's a matter of departments making choices," Dean of Arts and Sciences Hugo Sonnenschein said yesterday. Faculty members said this week that the professor is sorely needed, not just for research or teaching, but to combat lingering stereotypes and prejudices on campus against Muslims. Visiting professor Clarke said she has recently found graffiti scribbled over signs for her "Introduction to Shi'ite Islam", and said she has also seen shirts which also play off the word "Shi'ite." Oriental Studies professor Roger Allen also said he has seen the defaced posters for Clarke's class. Yale Professor Gerhard Bowering, the University's last professor of Islamic Studies, said yesterday he was attracted to the New Haven school six years ago by the opportunity to design a program of broad-based research -- which had been impossible to create here. Bowering said that researchers in Islamic Studies draw on many concentrations, including language, history, political science, anthropology and art. Difficulties obtaining primary source materials from other departments at the University brought about his departure, he said. "The elements are there, the focus is not there," Bowering said this week. "You would need someone in Religious Studies to really push through an Islamic Studies program but you must do it as an interdisciplinary program." Bowering said that when he was hired fifteen years ago, the Religious Studies was making a progressive attempt to break through into Islam as a new religious field, but that the department lacked both resources and political clout within the University. That trend is only a recent one at the University, according to Middle East Center Director Brian Spooner, adding that during the first half of the century, the University was at the forefront of Middle Eastern studies. "It looks to me as though we hit a low," Spooner added. "Penn was one of the four major places in the world in the study of the Middle East in the first half of this century. But then things declined in the later 70's and early 80's, and since then I think things are improving again."Comments powered by Disqus
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