NU profs try to stay balanced as attention narrows on Islam

Elaine Helm

Weinberg lecturer Lynn Whitcomb said she always has been careful to provide fair and unbiased information about Islam in her Arabic language classes. But as conflicts continue in the Middle East, she has become more adamant about creating a balance in the material she presents.

“Sometimes talking to people, if you don’t sound 100 percent supportive of Palestinians, you’re a Zionist and if you don’t sound 100 percent supportive of Israel, then you’re anti-Semitic,” she said. “I think there has to be something in between.”

Despite concerns of fairness, Northwestern professors teaching courses related to the Middle East, Islam and Judaism say high tension in American society regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has little bearing on the way they teach their courses.

“My approach to teaching language is that you have to, on some level, talk about culture,” Whitcomb said. “So we do talk about Islam in the class, but it’s more talking about religion as an impact on culture.”

But for Whitcomb and others teaching about the Middle East, criticism from extremists has become common. A Web site produced by a pro-Israel group called Middle East Forum criticizes professors and programs at universities for views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and on political Islam. Schools such as the University of Chicago are listed on the Web site, but, so far, there is no mention of NU.

The site,, says “American scholars … reject the views of most Americans and the enduring policies of the U.S. government about the Middle East” and “seem generally to dislike their own country.”

Medill associate professor Marda Dunsky, who is teaching a new course this quarter about reporting on the Arab world, said the views expressed on Campus Watch do not intimidate her. Rather, she said she is encouraged that about 100 professors have contacted the site’s owners asking to be added to the list.

“I think that’s a very good sign,” she said. “I mean, I’m not quaking in my boots. It’s like saying, ‘If you criticize American foreign policy, you don’t like your country.’ This is opinion masquerading as fact.”

Dunsky’s seminar class for Medill students will includes hands-on media criticism of American news coverage of Afghanistan, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and other issues in the Arab world, she said. She also said she hopes for respectful dialogue, despite “heightened sensitivities.”

NU’s registrar and department chairpersons in history and religion say increased interest in the subjects is difficult to measure, but classes filled quickly and few still remain open.

Carl Petry, a history professor teaching early Islamic history this quarter, said he sees evidence of greater interest in classes about the political aspects of Islam.

“The huge waiting lists involve (classes about) the contemporary period,” he said. “There is interest in the history, but that tends to come from people who are not interested in the religion in itself.”

Whitcomb said the department of African and Asian languages opened introductory Arabic classes this year to more students and offered the course during the summer session for the first time. With more than 30 students in her first-year Arabic class this year, Whitcomb has nearly twice the number of students as in the past.

“That’s a reasonable sign that there’s a fairly strong interest,” Whitcomb said. “But I’m not sure that it’s entirely due to recent events.”

Even the religion department’s introductory Islam course filling up on the first day of registration does not necessarily indicate greater student interest, said Cristina Traina, chairwoman of NU’s religion department.

“It’s really hard to measure increased interest,” she said. “We normally end up with waiting lists at this time of year, but often if the classes get full, students give up.”

However, students in the Muslim-cultural Students Association are hoping to see more Islam-related classes soon, said Tehseen Ahmed, McSA co-president.

“We’re trying to work on getting a Middle Eastern studies program going,” said Ahmed, a Weinberg senior. “There definitely has been an increasing interest (in) taking classes on that part of the world.”