Students fight to bring Islamic courses back

Pitt students will have four fewer opportunities to learn about the Islamic faith this fall, and some are worried that this will lead to Muslim stereotypes going unquestioned. 

During the upcoming fall semester, Pitt will no longer offer any of the four previously available classes that focused solely on the Islamic religion. The Muslim Student Association learned of the classes’ cancellations via an email from the Office of the Provost in March.  

In response, members of the MSA have coordinated the Offer Islam Campaign, an attempt to bring Islamic courses back to campus by petitioning to Patricia Beeson, provost and senior vice chancellor, and Juan Manfredi, vice provost for undergraduate studies.

University Vice Chancellor of Communication Ken Service wrote in an email last month that the University will cancel four courses indefinitely: The Anthropology of Islam, The Sociology of Islam, Intro to Islamic Civilization and The History of the Ottoman Empire. 

Service said the four cancelled courses are upper-level or special topic courses that are not regularly offered each semester.Intro to Islamic Civilization will be cancelled because the instructor who taught the course, Pinar Emiralioglu, is leaving Pitt for personal reasons. Emiralioglu declined to comment any further in an email sent mid-April.  

Service pointed to other classes still available to students.

“From a broader point of view the University of Pittsburgh offers approximately 30 courses next fall (fall 2014) that focus on the Middle East region, an example of how the University of Pittsburgh is a leader in how Global Studies are incorporated into our curriculum,” he said in the email.

Service listed courses including Christian Muslim Relations, Islamic Art and Islam Politics and Britain from the history, art history and urban studies departments, respectively.

Laila Al-Soulaiman, a member of the MSA, said that she thinks the University is “skirting around the issue” by referring students to the other classes still available.

“We want to make it very clear that we don’t believe there is any malicious intent from the University for cancelling these classes,” Al-Soulaiman, a freshman majoring in political science, said. “[The available classes]  don’t fulfill what we are asking for by any means. They are supplemental.” 

Sherean Ali, a junior majoring in biology and member of the MSA, said she believes that classes about Islam will help shape students’ outlooks for the better.

“There’s so many Muslims out there. There’s a lot of misconceptions,” Ali said. “It will give students a different perspective on things portrayed in the media.”

The MSA posted a petition online at, a website which enables users to mobilize support through online petitions, on April 13. The MSA’s goal is to reach 1,000 signatures as soon as possible.

As of May 5, the petition has accumulated 753 signatures. 

According to Al-Soulaiman, the group has garnered 250 signatures on a paper petition as of May 6, too. 

The paper petition states, “The Offer Islam Campaign requests that the University of Pittsburgh offer Islam in a curriculum that represents global citizenship, diversity and equity.” 

The petition also lists the goals of the campaign. “This petition requests that Islamic courses be offered in the history, anthropology, sociology and religious studies departments by spring 2015 [and that] two tenured track professors with Islamic history expertise be hired by fall of 2015,” the statement reads.

Ali said the MSA announced at a meeting on April 3 that the University cancelled the four classes.

As the Islamic courses will not be returning in the fall, some of the teachers who taught the courses will also no longer be at Pitt. 

David Montgomery, a visiting assistant professor who taught Anthropology of Islam, said in an email that he has decided to leave Pitt to look for a tenure stream job. As a visiting professor at Pitt, his five-year contract expires this fall, and the University did not offer him tenure. 

Service also responded to requests for tenured Islamic-focused faculty in the email.

“The Dietrich School is committed to adding faculty resources in Islam and Islamic culture in the future, following the academic and planning processes in place to maintain a high-quality faculty,” Service said.

For Al-Soulaiman, teaching Islam is relevant and important to Pitt’s reputation.

“Being that those four classes are cut, now there’s not a single class dedicated to Islamic thought or history and that’s unacceptable for a world-class research university,” she said.

Al-Soulaiman also said offering these classes at Pitt is key to curbing negative stereotypes about the religion.

“In this country, there’s a lot of misinformation and, frankly, a lack of information regarding Islam and its basic teachings,” Al-Soulaiman said. “Muslims in this country face an uphill battle. But on principle, we should have these classes. It’s one of the three largest monotheistic religions in the world.”

Ali has personal reasons for joining the cause and said the education she’s received so far at Pitt has strengthened her Muslim faith.  

Al-Soulaiman shared Ali’s sentiments.

“I am a Muslim, and I am very open about my faith, and being in a community that is open and accepting and knowledgeable of my faith [is] important to me,” Al-Soulaiman said.

Ali said that offering courses on Islam will exemplify Pitt’s receptiveness to diversity, and that the university is willing to accept everyone. The Offer Islam Campaign is continuing to expand. 

According to Al-Soulaiman, the MSA also plans to add members who are non-Muslim who would simply like to get involved in the campaign. 

One of these new members, Kara Kloss, does not practice the Islamic faith, but joined the campaign because she is studying international relations with a focus on the Middle East. Islamic courses being offered is important to her academic career. 

Kloss, a sophomore political science major, said teaching Islam is relevant because of how large and widespread the religion is. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 1.6 billion people worldwide identify as Muslim.

“If you look at basic statistics, it’s the fastest-growing religion,” Kloss said. “It’s a fifth of the people in the world. To exclude the understanding of a fifth of a people in the world is to understand the world a fifth less.”

The MSA has also contacted alumni and parents of MSA members to ask them to write letters to Beeson and Manfredi addressing their interests of keeping the Islamic courses at Pitt.

Ali hopes the campaign will show that students can influence administrative policy.

“This campaign was organized by students completely,” she said. “If it’s successful, it will show that any student can make a difference.”