An assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island is offering a course next semester that confronts the increasingly prominent issue of Western misconceptions regarding Islam.

Katrin Jomaa has taught ‘Secularism and Islamism in the Modern World’, PSC 482, twice since she came to URI in 2013. Jomaa, who is Lebanese, Muslim and wears a hijab, approaches the conflicting history and social identities of Islam and Western religion through multiple lenses.

“Compartmentalized understanding [of religion] will not do the job.” Jomaa said that her dual appointment as faculty in the political science and philosophy departments gives her the ability to offer students a more holistic understanding of religion.

A comparison of Western and Islamic relationships with religion is a key point of examination in the course, according to Jomaa. “Both perspectives are affected by a long history,” she said. “In the west there is a long history of interaction of church and state that resulted in separation of church and state we see today. From an Islamic perspective there was never…an organized hierarchal body of figures who dictate religion.”

Though difference is considered, Jomaa does not think the inconsistencies between the religions is what prompts the misunderstanding Westerners often have of Islam. “There is a misunderstanding for each towards the other,” she said.

Jomaa believes that western media’s coverage of Muslims and Islam is often slanted, portraying people of the Islamic faith in an often negative light- perpetrating western misconceptions of the religion. “It’s much more attractive that way,” she said.  

 

While domestic shootings in the US are rarely pegged as acts of terror by mainstream media, she said the media has shown to be quick to jump at any chance to call a crime involving Muslims terrorism. However, though crimes like the 9/11 attacks on New York City and the recent Paris attack were committed in the name of Islam, terrorists like ISIS actually violate Islamic ideals.

A lack of education for what Islam really is in the US leads to a negative association toward Muslims. “Only when people know can we come to a solution,” Jomaa said. “It’s about knowledge.”

Before she teaches a course like Secularism and Islam, Jomaa said she needs to address westerner’s often-subconscious preconceived ideas about Islam. “Students come to my classes and they have a preconceived notion of me–especially because I wear a hijab,” Jomaa said. “They come with baggage. I have a lot of work to do.”

Despite the amount of work she has to do, Jomaa does not believe in teaching toward a grade. “I want students to come to class to learn something, not to get a degree,” Jomaa said. “You’re investing in your life.”

One of the challenges presented to Jomaa at URI is the fact that she has found that the “body of students is not multicultural.” Despite this, she sees URI and academia in general as an almost perfect opportunity to educate and institute change. Jomaa thinks that in order to communicate on a topic as charged as the discussion of secularism and Islam is, “You have to have a peaceful environment where both parties involved are open to understand.”

Students interested in enrolling in the course for the 2015 spring semester can contact Jomaa for a permission number at kjomaa@uri.edu.  The class will run every Tuesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.

“I think it’s a blessing that such courses are offered in a university setting,” Jomaa said.