Building ‘bridges of understanding’: VCU launches new Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies minor

The 18-credit minor reflects changes in the world and responds to the needs of students to become effective global citizens.

A professor teaching a class.
Samaneh Oladi, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the religious studies program of the School of World Studies, teaches a course on Islam. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

The School of World Studies in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences has started offering a new minor in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies to meet a growing interest in the important, yet often misunderstood, region of the world.

“American politicians and major media sometimes promote ideas about the region’s diverse populations, cultures and religions that are not always accurate, which leads to misunderstandings, misrepresentation and missed opportunities for establishing mutually beneficial relations,” said Faedah M. Totah, Ph.D., an associate professor of international studies in the School of World Studies. “The minor aims to correct the record by offering a more nuanced and balanced perspective about the region, its politics and people, and in so doing help to build bridges of understanding.”

The 18-credit minor updates and builds on an existing minor in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies, reflects changes in the world, and responds to the needs of students to become effective global citizens.

Courses include Introduction to the Middle East and North Africa, Contemporary Issues in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, Women in Islam, Governments and Politics of the Middle East, and Modern Islamic Thought and Global Trends. Students also are encouraged to complete Arabic language courses.

Faculty members Totah, Samaneh Oladi Ghadikolaei, Ph.D., and Mayda Topoushian, Ph.D., have been teaching courses on the Middle East and Islam for several years.

Totah teaches courses on globalization, development, urbanism, and the Middle East, and conducts research focused on gentrification, historic preservation, neoliberal urbanism, and urban refugees in Damascus.

Ghadikolaei, an assistant professor, specializes in Islamic jurisprudence and family law, Middle East, and women’s studies, and conducts research on the evolving roles of women as religious authorities and producers of Islamic knowledge.

Topoushian, a teaching assistant professor, teaches courses on globalization, international and U.S. media coverage of the Middle East and North Africa, governments and politics of the Middle East, gender, hip-hop, sexuality and resistance in the Middle East and North Africa, and cross-cultural communication.

They were joined this fall by Kamilia Rahmouni, Ph.D., an assistant professor who has taught all levels of Arabic language classes and courses on the cultures, history, religions and languages of the Middle East and North Africa.

“[Rahmouni] has done amazing work on revitalizing the Arabic language program in the short time she has been here,” Totah said.

Many VCU students are interested in the Middle East and want to learn more about it, she said. Some are from the region, while others would like to travel, work or live there.

“Based on our regional and disciplinary expertise, we aim to provide students with the knowledge and experience to … achieve their goals and play a part in the work of building positive relations between the people of the Middle East and the people of the United States,” Totah said. “The revised minor is very much informed by, and exemplifies, VCU’s commitment for ‘[a]n engaged, learner-centered environment that fosters inquiry, discovery and innovation in a global setting.’”

In addition to courses in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, the faculty are also planning activities that engage students outside the classroom, including a speaker series and faculty-led programs abroad, which would be open to all VCU students.

Down the road, faculty members hope the new minor lays the foundation for a possible major in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. They are also developing additional courses that are expected to be available in fall 2020 and are in the process of collaborating with faculty across the College of Humanities and Sciences to offer a more robust course selection related to the minor.

For more information about the minor, students are encouraged to contact School of World Studies advising at swsadvising@vcu.edu.

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