The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001 devastated a nation and resulted in the shipment of thousands of U.S. soldiers to the Middle East, a region where Islam and Arab cultures dominate. While U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq has created controversy over the past decade, it also sparked great interest among University of Wisconsin-Madison students.
Since Sept.11 and the nation’s declaration of war against terrorism, student enrollment in Middle East Studies and Arabic language programs increased dramatically, from 35 students in 2000 to approximately 145 in 2009, according to Professor of African Languages and Literature Dustin Cowell.
Following the 9/11 attacks, students became increasingly interested in the cultures of the countries at war with the U.S. and wanted to learn what exactly it meant to be Muslim, Cowell said.
“Before [9/11] there was always some attention to the Middle East, but then we were actually fighting a war in a Muslim territory in Afghanistan,” Cowell said. “And then Islam replaced the adversary for the United States in popular imagination.”
However, as students’ interest in the Middle East skyrocketed with the beginning of the skirmish, it also lowered when U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan decreased over the past few years, according to Cowell.
“We saw the biggest increase with the conflicts in Iraq and just after [9/11],” Cowell said. “[The United States] is not looking to expand that kind of war effort in the Middle East, I expect, so there is a leveling off at this point.”
However, Professor of Turkic and Central Eurasian Studies Uli Schamiloglu said there are other reasons for the rise and decline of enrollment besides the amount of military presence in Middle East countries.
According to Schamiloglu, the downward trend can be attributed to a recent 47 percent cut from the federal government in addition to the termination of government funding allotted to universities after 9/11 to promote “critical languages” such as Arabic among students.
“[The cuts have] a strong impact on a lot of programs,” Schamiloglu said. “So from that point of view, that means that the institution may have fewer resources for offering these courses.”
Despite the decline in enrollment, Schamiloglu said educating students about Middle Eastern and Muslim countries is important because it helps them avoid misinformation and harmful stereotypes.
“Too often you could say that our society is inward-looking and insular, especially in recent times,” Schamiloglu said. “There are a lot of people who know English and know something about our culture and its not always the case that Americans understand foreign cultures.”