Islamic Studies After 9/11 – From Subject Orchid to Top Seller

By Stefanie Oswalt

Evacuated from Afghanistan on arrival at Tashkent airport. After the Taliban came to power, interest in Islamic studies may skyrocket again, as it did after 9/11. (German Armed Forces / Marc Tesensohn)

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, specialists in Islamic culture are suddenly in great demand. The niche subject of Islamic studies was booming. This could happen again when the Taliban take power in Afghanistan.

“I was twelve when September 11 happened. I still remember the day and the amazement of my parents sitting in front of the TV and how we thought: What is going on there? », Remembers filmmaker Nilgün Akıncı. The next day at school, she had to explain: “What’s wrong with you in Islam that you have to do something like that?” He was asked. She felt like a stranger, a shocked observer like everyone else in the class.

Suddenly press officer for Islam

On September 11, 2001, Nilgün Akıncı was given a role she never wanted. She comes from a Turkish family in Cologne and, at the age of twelve, she becomes overnight an expert on Islam: “I did not know what was the start of an avalanche, that a career as a spokesperson. from the Islamic press was waiting for me. I had been going for years to school or in my environment justifies why something is like in Islam. “

As a teenager, Nilgün Akıncı had an experience that anyone in this country can have dealing with the so-called Islamic world in the broadest sense. This is especially true for teachers and students of Islamic studies, says Ulrike Freitag, Islam scholar in Berlin:

“The public interest is always very much focused on topical issues. It was the question of Palestine for a while, it was the Gulf War for a while, it was 9/11, it was the Islamic State. I’m sure now the Taliban will be a big problem again. “

A discipline in transition

Ulrike Freitag teaches Islamic studies at the Free University of Berlin and is director of the Leibniz Center for the Modern Orient. For twelve years she explored how much Islam can be found in the Muslim world in a research project called “Muslim Worlds – Worlds of Islam”.

Islamic scholar and journalist Navid Kermani called his subject a “monster.” Friday agrees with him: “He’s also a monster because we’re supposed to cover the full breadth of the subject in research and teaching.”

Navid Kermani, freelance writer and graduate orientalist, received the German Bookstore Peace Prize in 2015. (dpa / Oliver Berg)

Impossible, because Islamic studies represent a whole bunch of subjects: from simple language acquisition to philology, literary and cultural studies, from sociology and history to ethnological questions – in an expanding space from North Africa to the front the East extends to Asia, as countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan also belong to the Islamic world.

In recent decades, the subject has undergone a significant change, explains Freitag: “When I started studying, the Iranian revolution was something that made a lot of people take an interest in the subject, even though the offer oriented towards Iran was only very small. Then there were the Gulf Wars, which brought huge waves of new students. In this regard, September 11 is a tradition.

The number of chairs has increased by a third

These waves also had an impact as students were more interested in contemporary topics than usual classic topics, says Freitag. Johannes Zimmermann, an Islamic scholar specializing in the Ottoman Empire and a specialist advisor at the University of Heidelberg, agrees with her:

“Here too, I have the feeling that in recent years more and more historical subjects have been dealt with from a today’s perspective. It is certainly also an echo of the political upheavals in the Middle East, which not 11th or with it are not sufficiently explained. “

The Encyclopedia of Islam is a standard work in oriental studies. Since the turn of the millennium, interest in their subject has increased dramatically, also due to current political developments, report Islamic scholars. (dpa-Zentralbild / Matthias Toedt)

Despite their topicality, Islamic studies function as a “small subject” in German universities: the Internet portal “Small subjects” in Germany, supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, has 40 chairs at 20 sites. The number of chairs has increased by about a third in recent years.

However, the number of students fluctuates, says Zimmermann: “There has been a marked change in the number. In the 1990s, a beginners’ class in Islamic studies was made up of about 20 people. This increased considerably until 2005, at least here in Heidelberg. there was a noticeable peak in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. “

Desire for a career in journalism, diplomacy or the secret service

From 100 to 120 new students per semester at the time, there are now around 30 new students per academic year in Heidelberg. Then as now, many graduates were waiting for professional opportunities in the diplomatic or journalistic field, explains Zimmermann. A degree in Islamic studies can also be useful for careers in the security authorities, the police or the secret service.

After graduating from high school, Nilgün Akıncı also decided to take courses in Islamic studies in order to ensure his own Muslim identity: that there are different currents. “Not having to represent who whatever and not having to justify themselves was a release for them.

Islamic theology as a separate subject

Akıncı is now using the knowledge gained during her studies for her career as a freelance director and filmmaker. Since graduating in 2012, there has been another development in Islamic studies: many students with an immigrant background in search of their religious roots are now migrating to Islamic theology, which is now taught as a independent material in several places.

Sometimes there was a strong defensive reaction from colleagues, the new topic was perceived as a kind of competition, explains Ulrike Freitag. “On the other hand, I think it’s a relief for Islamic studies that there are now colleagues who deal specifically with Islam from a theological point of view.” Even so, the subject is still quite complex – and the events that require explanation are no less so.

Moreover, the wave of migration following the Syrian civil war since 2015 has had little impact on the number of students in Islamic studies, say Johannes Zimmermann and Ulrike Freitag – unlike the related subject of Arab studies. According to information from the Department of Arab Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, many native Arabic speakers are studying today, who continue their studies here abroad and who see their future in integration work or with NGOs.

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