UC Berkeley Extension meets heightened interest in Middle East

By Fernando Quintero

03 April 2002 | In response to September 11, UC Berkeley Extension added courses related to Arabic culture this spring, including courses in language, religion, and Middle Eastern politics. Increased public interest has resulted in sold-out classes and waiting lists for popular courses.

The continuing adult education program added an additional introductory Classical Arabic course earlier this spring. The class is the first in a sequence of four in a two-year program designed to teach students to read Arabic as it was written from the time of the emergence of Islam in the early 7th century through today. Students are introduced to the Arabic writing system, sounds, basic grammar and vocabulary words. Readings are drawn from a variety of sources including fiction, journalism and the Quran.

“A fair number of people signed up for a class that is significantly difficult,” said lecturer John Hayes, sounding a bit amazed by the media attention his and other courses on Arabic and the Middle East have re-ceived recently.

Why the increased interest in learning Arabic? One local newspaper claims interest has been sparked, in part, by FBI Director Robert Mueller, who made a public plea, soon after the attack, for help from citizens who speak Arabic, Farsi or Pashto. The agency has since received more than 15,000 applications for 200 linguistics positions.

Extension also launched an online course last month, “The History of Islam,” taught by Extension instructor Arthur Kane Scott. An historian and cultural anthropologist, Scott says his approach is to “give students a good grounding in the religion and culture of Islam,” beginning with the life of the prophet Muhammad and the teachings of the Quran, then moving on to Islam in the Middle Ages.” Scott examines the politics of the Middle East from World War I to the present, and emphasizes the geopolitics of oil, Arab nationalism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and terrorism.

“What Sept. 11 has done is … greatly intensify interest in Islamic history, religion, culture and, especially, politics,” notes Scott, who says classroom discussions have grown increasingly lively since the terrorist attacks. “Students ask more telling questions. People start to see the bias in the media, and get a clearer understanding of how we have arrived at the current state of affairs.”

Scott finds that his students are sometimes surprised to realize how little they know, at first, about Islam. “There is a lot of confusion,” he says. “People are not aware how complex a world it is.”

Topical courses
Two related courses on Middle Eastern socio-political history this spring are fully enrolled with waiting lists. In “Israel in the Palestinians,” newsman Bruno Wassertheil examined the origins of Israeli and Palestinian nationalism. In “The Modern Middle East: Its People and Its History,” Arabic instructor Hayes goes beyond mainstream media depictions to examine the region’s politics, religions and cultures. The 10-session course will be repeated in June. A course on modern Middle Eastern fiction has also been added for the summer.

Responding to community interests and the demand for courses to help people make sense of the world has been a tradition of the Berkeley Extension program since its founding in 1891.

“Bringing the University’s resources to bear on high-interest contemporary issues is an important part of Extension’s mission,” said Kap Stann, UC Berkeley Extension director of public relations.

Three thousand-plus courses
Today, Extension offers more than 3,000 courses each year, including more than 200 available online, as well as scores of certificate and professional sequence programs.

Enrollment has been affected by recent events, says Stann. Even before Sept. 11, technology businesses that were sending their employees to professional development courses had cut back. After 9/11, international student enrollment dropped as a result of heightened concern over international travel and the talk of government proposals to restrict international student visas.

According to Stann, a recent trend in Extension enrollment has been a return to what she called “traditional” courses in business, accounting, finance and project management.

“During the technology boom, we had a lot of people specializing in tech-related fields,” she says. “Now, with the job market the way it is, people are getting back to basics.”

Campus faculty and staff are eligible for a 25 percent discount on all Extension courses taken after one year of employment. For information, call 642-4111 or see


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