CentreTerm: Dr. Matthew Pierce explores Islam in America
Islam has often been a controversial, misunderstood and divisive issue in American history and culture. Aiming to dismantle stereotypes and break down barriers is Assistant Professor of Religion Matthew Pierce and his CentreTerm class, Islam in America.
CentreTerm is an intense three-week term between traditional semesters that allows students and faculty to focus on one particular subject exclusively, often through travel or other unconventional means. Pierce is taking full advantage of the flexible and creative nature of CentreTerm to design an eye-opening course on an important social, political and religious issue.
“I’ve noticed students tend to approach Islam as something foreign to America, something Middle Eastern, something which has only recently had a significant role in American society,” Pierce says. “All of these assumptions are deeply problematic. This course is intended to unsettle those assumptions and help the students develop a more nuanced understanding of Islam and America.
“Rather than approaching Islam through the lens of seventh-century Arabia, as many introductions to Islam do,” he adds, “we will foreground the experiences and concerns of modern American Muslims. This approach will make Islam more intelligible to students and equip them with tools to think about the relationship between religion and society.”
As an introduction, the class will read Autobiography of Malcom X, as well as study the early history of Muslims in America, which unbeknownst to many, stretches back as far as the 16th century. Malcolm X will be especially helpful in getting students to think about the diversity of American Muslim experiences among immigrants, African Americans and converts.
The highlight of the course is a weeklong trip to Atlanta, Ga., Raleigh, N.C., Richmond, Va., Washington, D.C., and New York City to meet with various Muslim intellectuals, activists, religious leaders and professionals. In conjunction with the trip, students will journal about their experiences, ultimately using what they write to contribute to an online resource for teaching and learning about Islam in America.
For Pierce, the short January term could not be a better time to explore this issue.
“I appreciate the way CentreTerm facilitates a more sustained conversation on a topic,” Pierce says. “The students are less distracted and better able to spend time thinking about the subjects and conversations every day; it also allows us professors to get to know the students better and engage in more honest and personal ways with the subject matter.”
And though simply titled “Islam in America,” the course is meant above all to convey just how complicated the topic of Islam in America truly is.
“There is no single type of Islam, just like there is not a single form of any religion,” Pierce explains. “Rather than trying to reduce Islam to a few bullet-point beliefs or rituals, this course will help the students gain an intuitive and personalized appreciation for the dynamic Islamic tradition.”
Ultimately, Pierce is looking forward to the ways this class will change perceptions and attitudes about both Muslim and American culture.
“This is a course as much about America as it is about Islam,” he explains. “The stories, contributions and struggles of Muslims in America are often overlooked, but they have played a surprisingly central role in the development of American society.”
Learn more about CentreTerm.
By Mariel Smith