A Challenging Point of Entry: Beginning to Study Islam After 9/11

By: Henry D. Brill

September 11, 2019

Reflecting on 9/11 Across Generations

Like so many Millennials, I have only the faintest memories of September 11, 2001. The watercolor paint set my mother gave me that day, with its muted colors seemingly attempting to quell the unusual sense of fear in my otherwise peaceful childhood home, stands out among moments now lost. More discernible are the ways in which 9/11 has shaped the backdrop of American politics and culture during the formative years of my youth: wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a recent travel ban on Muslim-majority countries, and a dangerous mistrust of Islam and its practitioners. Part and parcel of how 9/11 has colored the tenor of the times stands its influence on trends in American higher education. Simply put, the attacks have drawn more students—the next generation of scholars, leaders, and policymakers—to study the Middle East and Islam, an uneasy relationship rife with challenges and possibilities.

Since enrolling in a class on pre-modern Islamic history during my second semester in college, I have continued to take courses on the history, languages, and religious traditions of the Islamic world. Although my course of study has brought me to a wide range of institutions, from a small liberal-arts college to research universities at home and abroad, its seemingly disparate contours have been smoothed over by the students whom I have called classmates over the years. From language courses on Arabic or Turkish to history classes on the modern Middle East to religious studies seminars on Islam, I have consistently found myself studying alongside a cohort of students who cite (oftentimes explicitly) 9/11 in particular or terrorism in general as the principal reason behind their program of study. 

My initial reason for studying the Middle East and Islam was rather different. I had the privilege of traveling to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey before stepping foot in a college classroom. Curious about the history and religious traditions of the region after experiencing an admittedly small taste of its complex culture, I signed up for that first course on Islamic history. Studying at Kenyon College, an institution known for its programs in literature and the humanities, shaped my research exploring a royal autobiography to track changes to political culture and Sufi orders during the sixteenth century in Central and South Asia. In large part due to my interest in cultural productions from the early-modern era, I have at times felt distant from those who also study the (nebulously defined) Middle East with a focus on international terrorism. 

Needless to say, I feel conflicted about how 9/11 has drawn an ever-increasing number of students to study the Middle East. It is easy to question the essentialist perspective from which all-too-many students and experts approach the region and Islam as entirely violent, repressive, and stagnant—in no small part a consequence of the attacks. A key part of my education in the global humanities lies in the stance of cultural relativism: each society has its poets and artists, politicians and bankers, criminals and terrorists. To paraphrase one of my undergraduate advisors: The goal of the humanities is to not only to learn about but also to learn from the other. How much learning from the other can we do if the other is essentialized as being overwhelmingly negative, even contrary to “Western” society and its values? 

Although 9/11 has certainly colored the perceptions of an emergent generation of students, it has also been responsible for bringing more students to study the Middle East and Islam. Not only does the increase in perspectives engaging with the subject enrich the quality and depth of academic debate; it also has prompted more serious explorations of the region and Islam than in the pre-9/11 era through study abroad, language learning, and other such modes of cross-cultural exchange. And, while 9/11 has drawn students to Islamic studies programs, this point of entry does not necessarily need to shape the trajectory of how one understands the Middle East in some genealogical sense. Only by studying with scholars trained in the complexities of the subject will students leave academia with a well-rounded impression of the Middle East and Islam. 

Moving forward, there is certainly much to be done in teaching and scholarship on the Middle East and Islam—most notably shaking off the looming legacy of Orientalism and pushing toward rich theoretical frameworks, such as Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s “connected history” or Joseph Fletcher’s “integrative history,” to study these subjects in a broader view. Amid the challenges moving forward, however, there remains hope that the next generation of scholars and policymakers will be better informed of the dynamic cultural, religious, and political forces at play in the Middle East—leading to deeper cross-cultural exchange in the wake of 9/11.

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