Middle East studies in the News
Theology Professor Inspired After 9/11 to Pursue Religious Research, Teaching
by Ricky Cody
For the first time in seven years, Valparaiso University offered a class in Islam Theology last Fall. At the beginning of this academic year the Theology Department welcomed Dr. Melanie Trexler to the Valpo family.
Trexler brings to the university, not only a stellar academic portfolio, but an undeniable passion for Islamic religious studies. Trexler completed her B.A. at Furman University where she double majored in political science and religion.
"I think that whenever people act out religiously, it tends to be in very political ways," she mentioned in regards to keeping her political science major.
However, Dr. Trexler had not always wanted to be a professor of Islam nor a professor of any religious practice. It was not until Sept. 11, 2001, that her academic focus changed.
"I thought I wanted to be a lawyer," she said, "then 9/11 happened."
A sophomore Resident Assistant for 24 freshman women in and of itself can house challenges, but on this particular day, the first day of class for Furman students, it proved to be the most difficult.
"Those [students] who had 8 a.m. classes left," she recalled, "and the world was beautiful and wonderful, but when they got back -- the world was very different."
Emotions ran high across the country that day. Trexler's residents gathered outside her room crying hysterically,
"I had no answers for them," she said.
A few days following the attacks, Dr. Trexler learned that one of her residents lost her aunt in one of the towers.
Emotional and upset her resident stormed down the hall yelling, "I hope George Bush finds whoever did this then kills them and their religion."
Those words struck an immediate chord with her, "I didn't know anything about Islam," Trexler said, "but I knew it was not fair to demonize an entire people based on the actions of a few."
The next semester she took an Islamic course and, "never looked back."
Captivated by that course, she continued her education earning her Masters in Divinity at Vanderbilt University in 2007. Then went on to receive her doctorate at Georgetown University in theological and religious studies concentrating on religious pluralism. She studied Arabic during her academic career and even traveled to Lebanon for a summer. Dr. Trexler's impressive repertoire made her a great choice for the university.
But, why now the need to add this course to Valpo's curriculum? The course was not offered since the departure of Dr. Nelly van Doorn-Harder, who now teaches Islamic studies at Wake Forest University.
"We just needed to find someone who can fit the position and our culture here at Valpo," said George Heider, Theology Dept. Chair.
While the seven year gap seems large, Dr. Trexler says that Valpo is actually doing quite well in comparison to other universities who offer similar courses.
"Valpo is on par with other schools hiring someone to teach Islam," she said.
Demand rose for Islamic scholars at colleges and universities following the attacks on 9/11.
People remember quite clearly where they were when news spread that terror unfolded in New York. This stamp on the human memory is neither good or bad, it just exists. However now, it is nearly impossible to turn on the news and not see a story or read a headline that discusses Islam or Middle East affairs.
Well aware of political pundits and large media heads, Trexler believes that, "Often we take the word of one person or one group as representative for all groups."
Trexler believes studying Islam from a religious studies approach allows students, who are not practitioners of Islam, to see inside a community and understand why Muslims do what they do.
"It is really important that as we study religions," Trexler said, "that we suspend judgment."
Dr. Trexler referenced ISIS, saying that it is, "not fair and not true," to think that ISIS represents the entire Muslim community.
"What do other voices in the community say [about ISIS]," she added, "this is a large majority, and they are saying something different."
Historians and Middle East scholars agree that Islam has a rich history, and too often this is neglected. In a global world where sensationalism sells papers, audiences are not exposed to the many things that make Islam unique and truly awe inspiring. From the Prophet, to the sacred texts like the Quran, these elements hold truths that deserve equal representation.
"There is art, architecture, music, and so much more," Trexler explained, "if we only focus on violent groups, we've missed the beauty of Islam."
The global community has gotten a lot smarter when it comes to asking the 'right' questions to the 'right' people.
"We are transitioning [at Valpo] and encouraging open dialogue," Heider said, "having Melanie here allows conversation to stay fluid, and educational."
The reality is that bad things happen in this world. However, Trexler believes that setting ground rules for discussing the hard topics and utilizing sacred texts, even music, can allow for students to understand Muslims' ideas about morality, God and their community.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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