MU now offers a new minor on Middle East studies

Although scores of books with Arabic and Hebrew titles line Nathan Hofer’s bookshelves, he believes an understanding of the Middle East is more than grasping a dichotomy of religions.

Hofer, who holds a doctorate in religious studies with a primary emphasis on Judaism and a secondary emphasis on Islam, directs the new minor in Middle East Studies at MU, which became available to students this fall.

“What we call the Middle East goes beyond Islam,” Hofer said. “I want them (students) to have a coherent framework to realize that the Middle East is a lot more diverse, religiously and politically, than most people understand.”

The new program allows students to choose 15 credit hours from 11 disciplines, including art, archeology, history, literature and religious studies.

Hofer’s interest in the program is as personal as it is professional. He returned to the United States after living in Syria in 2007. He visited Syria several more times until 2010, the last peaceful year before the civil war in Syria began.

Victor McFarland, assistant professor of history at MU, also teaches approved courses in the minor. McFarland said students often don’t have a chance to learn about the region beyond what they read in the headlines.

“The picture of the Middle East that students get from the news is sometimes limited to coverage of terrorists and refugees,” McFarland said. He said he hopes the minor can broaden perspective of the region by exposing students to a variety of courses.

Hofer said he also hopes the minor will encourage interest in associated courses. In the past five years, enrollment in some religious courses has fallen, according to MU’s Student Information System.

For example, an introductory course to Islam saw an enrollment decline from 47 students in 2010 to 27 students in 2015. When Hofer began teaching Introduction to Islam, his enrollment capacity was 110, but that number of students never signed up for the course. As a result, the cap was lowered.

Hofer said his colleagues at other universities report the same downward trend in religious studies courses.

But classes that include aspects of mythology or magic, or ones that center on a specific problem or topic, show increased enrollment. Hofer’s course Islam and the Myth of Religious Violence, is nearly full with 27 students, while courses such as Arabic rarely reach their capacity of 30 students.

Although students overall might not be choosing to take courses that focus on the Middle East, in the fall of 2015, a group of undergraduates at MU asked Hofer to spearhead the effort to bring the minor to the university.

“There are a lot of students here that want to work in the Middle East,” he said. Most of the students enrolled his classes are aspiring global journalists, lawyers or political science majors, he said.

Senior Kate Hargis studies political science with a math minor and plans to attend law school. Hargis’ interest in the minor was inspired by her attraction to the region.

“I think understanding and learning about it is so important,” Hargis said. She spent time in Oman, which is on the Arabian Sea southeast of Saudi Arabia, and developed a deep appreciation for the culture and people in the Middle East.

Aside from gaining global perspectives, the minor allows MU to join the ranks of most other schools in the Southeastern Conference. Of the 14 SEC member schools, all but five include an academic area of study specializing in the Middle East.

“I think it’s really important that we can keep up if we’re going to be in the same league,” Hargis said. “We need to be in the same league in education as well.”

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