Americans in recent years have shown a growing interest in Arab and Islamic cultures. At the Osher Lifelong Institute, or OLLI, part of Granite State College in Manchester, New Hampshire, a new series of courses intended for retirees and people over 50 reflects the widening public interest in Islam.
The course is a series of five lectures on Islam and Arabic Culture, and in tonight's class, about 30 people, from a variety of backgrounds, are learning about the pillars of Islam and related concepts and misconceptions. They also discuss Christianity in the Middle East and Islam in the United States.
The students express a number of reasons for taking the class. "I really want to know more about Islam'" says one. "I think I need to know more about what's out there," says another. Others express a need to learn about their neighbors and "part of the world that has been closed off" to them.
Sue Staples, OLLI's Project Director says the institute started offering the classes, because community members voiced an interest in Middle East studies. "We find ourselves in a very complex world trying to understand what's happening both in other countries but also in our own," she says. "We're living in a time where we have many immigrants and refugees coming into our southern New Hampshire. So we have this wonderful opportunity of having a growing number of Arab and Muslim populations, people that we get to know and who can help us understand. We can learn from each other."
Lecturer Nabil Migalli works hard to make this learning experience enjoyable for his students. He shows short documentaries on a single topic, invites his audience to listen to Arabic music and sample Middle Eastern food. "They are motivated to learn," he says. "Once you are after 50 and you decide, 'I'm going to these kinds of courses, there is a motivation, there is a curiosity to know. Many of them are very well educated but don't know much about Islam."
Mr. Migalli says his students are often surprised by what they learn about Islam:
"They think that all Arabs are Muslims and many people think that more Muslims are Arabs," he says. "But of course we tell them that the majority of Muslims are non-Arabs, the majority of Arabs are Muslim and there are Arab Christians and maybe a few Arab Jews are left. Being an Arab is not a race, it's not a religion and it's not a nationality. It's an ethnic identity."
Another widespread misconception, Mr. Migalli believes, is that Islam itself promotes violence and terrorism. "When it comes to violence, when it comes to suicide bombers, they try to say that violence is part of Islam as a religion and as a culture," he says. "Of course, we give them the real side of Islam. That Islam is a relationship between you and God, and there are misunderstandings like in any other community."
Mr. Migalli says he often shares with his students his memories of growing up a Christian in Egypt, where Muslims are the majority. He explains that Christian Arabs in the Middle East share with Muslims the same language, history and culture. He says his students seem deeply engaged and filled with questions: "The questions indicate great interest in the topic," he says. "Some questions are challenging. A variety of questions are related to language, music, poetry, religion and politics. People don't want to leave at the end of the time. They want to have Arabic food next time, they want to listen to music, they ask about web sites, and they ask about books to read."
OLLI Program Assistant Barbara Grant says that since the lecture series started, it has clearly been grabbing students' attention. "Not only in the number of the people that signed up for the class, but the lack of absences each week, as though people didn't want to be absent," she says. "You know in other courses that we offer, people have doctor appointments, or other appointments that interfere. What I saw in here basically was people working their schedules around Nabil's class. There were few absentees."
OLLI's Sue Staples agrees. She says, the courses that ended last week proved to be their most popular classes. "I had the opportunity to attend the last two classes," she says. "I was so pleased as a learner myself to sit and listen to Nabil, and it was a lively class. I had the Chance to talk with students after the classes, everybody was saying to me, 'Please, can we continue. We feel like we have just scratched the surface. We'd like to study in more depth.'"
Demand has been so strong, Ms. Staples says, that the institute is planning an additional series next spring. She says the institute is also considering workshops at more venues throughout the community so that more people can learn about Arab and Islamic cultures.