GAA Seminar on Islam Draws Capacity Crowd

Even before Sept. 11, 2001, Carl Ernst’s publishers had doubts about asking him to write a book about Islam. When Ernst submitted a manuscript just months after the terrorist attacks, the publishing house decided to drop the project.

The reason, Ernst told a capacity crowd at the GAA this week, was that the publishers didn’t want to be associated with a book that, they said, could justify terrorism.

The experience “showed me, in effect, how important it was to have a piece of writing that would address issues [posed] by Islam in an open and fair-minded way,” said Ernst, W.R. Kenan professor of religious studies at UNC. His book, Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World, was picked up by UNC Press and published in 2003.

The Carolina College for Lifelong Learning class, “Muslim Societies and Thought: Understanding Islam,” held Monday, was the second seminar Ernst has led to examine his book for the GAA.

Ray Linville ’67, the alumni education manager for the GAA, said ongoing interest in events in the Middle East prompted the second class. More than 60 people enrolled in the seminar – 50 percent more than expected – and another 14 signed up to be on a waiting list.

Ernst, who also directs the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilization, said he wrote Following Muhammad to “try to change the frame of reference” for non-Muslims who have little personal experience with Islam.

The book has two objectives, he said. The first is to argue that “Muslims are actually human beings.”

“This may seem like an absurd argument to have to make,” Ernst said. But he pointed out that portrayals of Muslims in the media, movies and popular culture – from which most Americans’ understanding of Islam is drawn – are “dehumanized to an alarming extent.”

Almost all depictions of Muslims on the news or in movies are negative, Ernst said. In addition, Muslims are faced with racial and religious prejudices in the United States and Europe that are drawn, in part, from the European colonial-era idea of the “white man’s burden.” Historically, he said, both the United States and Europe have felt a need to bring “civilization” to the Middle East.

The second objective of Following Muhammad is to debunk the idea of a “Muslim world.” Ernst pointed out that no Muslim society exists that does not have historical and cultural ties to the United States, Europe and other parts of the world – and vice versa.

Muslim culture traces its philosophical roots to Ancient Greek thinkers such as Aristotle, he said, and Muslim art and architecture continued to be popular in parts of Europe even after Islamic rulers were expelled from Spain.

Moreover, Ernst said, the idea of a separate Muslim world inevitably creates a conflict.

“If we talk about more than one world, it’s actually intolerable,” he said. “Because if you have another world out there, you have to conquer it.”

Ernst also addressed questions from the audience on topics such as the status of women in Muslim countries, the conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq, and the history of Muslims in Europe following the Spanish Inquisition.

Linville said the high turnout at the seminar was due in large part to Ernst’s distinguished reputation as a faculty member as well as the fact that Middle East issues are “high on the radar screen right now.”

Classes that examine religion, international affairs and history generally are the most popular Lifelong Learning programs, Linville said. “Then when you have in intersection of religion and international topics, that just increases the interest.”

In July, more than 300 people attended the GAA’s most recent “Think Fast” forum, “Escalating Crisis in the Middle East: Issues and Options.” The forum was organized in response to this summer’s conflict between Israel and Lebanon.

Although the crowd at Ernst’s seminar was larger than usual, a number of those present were CCLL program regulars. Rhoda Gada began attending the classes about eight years ago and said she and her husband have signed up for 10 or 15 classes this year.

Gada said she particularly enjoys classes about religion, government, philosophy and literature. She added that the accessibility of UNC’s campus and faculty was a great advantage to living in the Chapel Hill area.

“It’s such a wealth of information and talent here that it’s – it’s a treat,” she said.

– Laura Thompson ’06

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