Islam and the "West" guides discussion of cultures, crises

By Phineas Ruekert

The Mac Weekly sent Phineas Ruekert ’15 to explore “Islam” and the “West,” a sociology course devoted to understanding the concept of “Islam” and the “West” and how the two relate. Ruekert attended the class, spoke with professor Khaldoum Samman, and spoke to students in the course about their experiences with it. Professor Khaldoun Samman’s sociology course is titled “Islam” and the “West,” not Islam and the West. Some might think that this distinction is merely semantics—no more than a couple of quotation marks. But as Samman puts it: “The title of the class, Islam and the West, is actually a misrepresentation of the class.” “A major part of the class is actually critiquing the notion that there is ‘Islam’ and there is a ‘West,'” Samman said. “Islam” and the “West,” a course offered every fall semester, covers a variety of issues, but begins with fundamental questions: What is Islam? What is the West?” These fundamental questions, Samman said, are not asked often enough. And society’s repeated failure to ask these questions has created a debate that is often extremely polarizing. Samman argued that on one end of this Islam vs. West debate is a collection of conservatives who proffer a highly Islamophobic worldview of Islamic peoples as some sort of “invading species into our civilization.” On the other end, however, is a collection of liberals that claims, “Islam is all about peace.” There is little or no middle ground here—and many issues (i.e. colonialism, militarism, political, and economic struggles) are largely ignored in favor of a bygone argument—that the fundamental divide between “Islam” and the “West” is cultural. The course is divided into seven segments, and classes meet on Wednesday nights from 7 – 10 p.m. The segments range from the divergent perspectives and definitions of Islam & the West (described above), to an in-depth analysis of the conflict between Palestine and Israel, to ideas of Arab nationalism and the rise of the Islamist movement, especially in relation to gender and minorities. One of the first texts that students read is Samuel Huntington’s essay “The Clash of Civilizations,” which incited much debate in academia in the early 1990s. According to Samman, “The Clash of Civilizations” creates a constraining debate that “makes the West the judger of the relationship between [the West and Islam].” The structure of individual “Islam” and the “West” classes varies, and Samman uses several alternative teaching styles, such as the Fishbowl and Circle of Voices methods. Furthermore, classes are augmented by film viewings, small and large group discussions, student presentations, and guest authors. The discussion-oriented classes are combined with movies, food and breaks. Noah Westreich ’14, who recently declared a Sociology major with a concentration in Middle Eastern studies, said, “the three hour class seems to pass faster than [his one hour] daytime classes.” Westreich traveled to Israel over the summer to participate in the J Street U student leadership trip and gained familiarity with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. He said, however, that he wanted to study the issue in a more academic setting; that’s why he chose to take “Islam” and the “West.” He has noticed that there is a large amount of interaction amongst students, and that students are “encouraged to debate and [to] question one another’s points of view,” but also that the classroom setting helps reduce bias. Westreich said one of the most important things he has taken out of the course is that “educated, level-headed discourse does exist.” Ceren Kaysadi ’14, who is from Istanbul, Turkey, has found that she’s really gotten to know herself through Samman’s course. She is a Muslim, but before taking “Islam” and the “West” was critical of Islamic culture. Through discussions in the course, however, she has come to terms with that part of herself. “Islam and the West made me re-think and re-assess about all the stereotyping we are exposed when studying ‘the other,’ the Islamic World in this case. I find it really valuable because in a way it helps me -objectively- discover my Muslim identity, which I have always been extremely critical of due to all those negative stereotyping about Islam,” said Kaysadi. Another student in “Islam” and the “West,” Sociology major Daniel Allen ’12, has friends active in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (SUPER), and has taken classes with Samman before. He has found it “really interesting how political agenda and bias have affected the way historical articles have been written about these polarizing issues.”