Class on ancient origins of Mideast conflict takes on new relevance

by Elizabeth P. Latt

Photo by John Bamber

John L. Esposito, the founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, spoke Oct. 24 on the origins and political ramifications of Islamic radicalism.

When Cary Dunlap sat next to some Jewish students during a Muslim Student Association discussion last year on the conflict in the Mideast, she was moved by the heartfelt opposing views that she heard.

"I realized that there were a whole lot of people at Vanderbilt that were passionate about this issue," said the junior in the College of Arts and Science. "I realized that if there was that kind of passion here at Vanderbilt, it was something I wanted to know more about, but without the rhetoric."

That's why she enrolled in a course offered for the first time this semester at Vanderbilt: "The Ancient Origins of Religious Conflict in the Middle East."

Dunlap, Jesse Stalnaker and Patrick Dupre are among 15 students who meet every Tuesday and Thursday morning to hear faculty from two schools and four departments discuss a region considered sacred not only by Jews and Muslims but also Christians.

Stalnaker, an Arts and Science senior, said he knew nothing of the ancient religious origins of the Mideast conflict. "I knew what was going on but not why."

For Dupre, also an Arts and Science senior, the class was a way to understand "why two groups with similar beliefs hate each other so much. I knew it had to have something to do with way past the 1940s when Israel was created."

Provost Thomas G. Burish challenged members of the Classics Department a year ago to offer the interdisciplinary course as a way for scholarship and teaching to make a special contribution in understanding the current world.

"Susan and I were looking for opportunities to do that very thing," said Robert Drews, who along with Susan Ford Wiltshire, is lead professor for the class. "We jumped on the suggestion."

With the events of Sept. 11, the class -- developed, approved and begun before that fateful date -- has taken on a relevancy far beyond that which originally prompted the course.

"The Provost was hearing from students that they wanted to learn more about the conflict in the Middle East," said Wiltshire. She and Drews recruited faculty from the Divinity School, the Graduate Department of Religion and the College of Arts and Science departments of history, philosophy and religious studies.

With funding from the Provost, they also invited well before the class began two internationally known scholars to deliver public lectures in conjunction with the class. "We wanted to help the community as well as our students to understand the issues involved," Wiltshire said.

John L. Esposito, the founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, spoke Oct. 24 on the origins and political ramifications of Islamic radicalism. Abdulaziz Sachedina, University of Virginia professor of religious studies and senior associate of the Preventive Diplomacy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, will speak Nov. 12 at 7 p.m. in Furman 114. The specialist in Muslim-Christian and Muslim-Jewish relations will speak on "The Koran as a Basis for Democratic Pluralism."

The first class in the newly developed course was held less than two weeks before the terrorist attacks on the United States. "Bob Drews and I have been deeply grateful to have something positive in place at the time it was needed most," Wiltshire said.

The class took on a whole new meaning on Sept. 11, Drews said. "We met while the World Trade Center was collapsing. We talked almost entirely of the tragedy and the nature of what was happening and what was at stake," he said.

But since that day, little of the class's attention has focused on modern-day events. Instead, the professors and guest lecturers are providing the history to help the students understand what is happening today.

"The timing of the course and the fact that it is led by two superb teachers have made for an extraordinary experience for those students fortunate enough to be enrolled in it," Burish said. "But the greatest value might be in the principle it demonstrates so well: the enduring value of a liberal arts education. World events have helped to make it easy to see why studying the ancient roots of modern religion and culture in the Middle East -- the focus in this case -- can be so important to understanding the world in which we live."

Recently, Drews led his students through the Judaeans' struggle to retain their identity, their religion and control of their land through a period of about 100 years that ended with the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 A.D.

"We're considered modern-day Romans," Dupre said following the class.

Kay Barry, a student in the Graduate Department of Religion who is pursuing a master's in theological studies, joined in. Of the current war on terrorism, she said, "People keep saying it's not a religious war, but it is." The radical Muslims are "anti-modernity, Western values, globalization. ... We're resented. We're the symbol of those things."

Because fundamentalist Muslims have no concept of the separation of church and state, U.S. support of those values is seen by Muslims in religious terms, she said.

This kind of discussion is just what Drews and Wiltshire hoped for. "I hope they will realize that what is happening today is viewed as part of the cosmic struggle with the forces of darkness and Satan," that had its origins centuries ago in a land that is still the center of strife, Drews said.

The professors plan to offer the class next year and expect to have more students. There will also be a change in the class. Rather than this year's two weeks, Drews said, the study of Islam will be "a considerably larger part of the syllabus."


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