Is­lamic stud­ies stu­dents laugh off crit­i­cism

Un­der­grad­u­ate pro­gram at the The­o­log­i­cal School of Thes­sa­loniki’s Aris­to­tle Univer­sity be­gins amid warn­ings from ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal world

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY STAVROS TZIMAS

"Do I look like a ter­ror­ist to you?” asks Yian­nis, laugh­ing. He had no fa­cial hair, just an ear­ring in his right ear. He looked like a happy teenager, full of life and a deep thirst for learn­ing. The same was true for Athana­sia, a cheer­ful blond sit­ting next to him.

Yian­nis Palamidis and Athana­sia Avramoglou are stu­dents in the new Un­der­grad­u­ate Pro­gram of Is­lamic Stud­ies at the The­o­log­i­cal School of the Aris­to­tle Univer­sity of Thes­sa­loniki, the first of its kind in Greece, which was launched – amid fierce crit­i­cism from the ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal world – this aca­demic year.

To­gether with 25 other young peo­ple, they com­prise the first batch of stu­dents to en­ter the pro­gram which op­po­nents call a “breed­ing ground for Is­lamic ex­trem­ism,” where the the­ol­ogy of Qu­ranic Is­lam, the tra­di­tions and its schools are taught in a sci­en­tific way and with a crit­i­cal ap­proach. El­e­ments of Arab cul­ture and lan­guage, and Or­tho­dox the­ol­ogy are also part of the course.

“The ex­pe­ri­ence is in­ter­est­ing, I have no bias with the cul­ture and the re­li­gion of th­ese peo­ple. When I read about the course, it men­tioned in­ter­est­ing things, so pur­sued it and got in. It is some­thing new and in­no­va­tive. I thought it would be use­ful later for busi­ness with the Arab world, diplo­macy and more. As for the crit­ics, they were in a hurry to judge be­fore see­ing ex­actly what it was,” says Yian­nis.

“I was in­ter­ested in the Balkan stud­ies course, and when I learned about the Is­lamic stud­ies course, I said, ‘Wow, what’s this?’ My par­ents en­cour­aged me to go for it, which I don’t re­gret. My friends cau­tiously ac­cepted it at the start, but then they too found it in­ter­est­ing. I made a good choice,” adds Athana­sia.

The to­tal num­ber of stu­dents who de­clared an in­ter­est in the Is­lamic stud­ies course dur­ing the na­tional univer­sity place­ment ex­ams came to 2,600, de­fy­ing the voices of dis­ap­proval warn- ing that the course would be a grad­u­ate school for ter­ror­ists.

When in Fe­bru­ary 2014 the univer­sity’s se­nate de­cided by an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity to launch the course, the back­lash be­gan. Some mem­bers of the clergy un­leashed their fury from the pul­pit, de­spite the fact that the arch­bishop of Athens did not op­pose the course and nei­ther did the four bish­ops of Thrace. A num­ber of both aca­demics and non-aca­demics ap­pealed to the State Coun­cil, which ap­proved the course re­gard­less.

At the time, Min­is­ter of Mace­do­nia and Thrace Gior­gos Or­fanos crit­i­cized plans for the course, say­ing it would be wrong to mix the study of Or­tho­dox faith with “some­thing else.”

“In the end, the ter­ror­ists didn’t ma­te­ri­al­ize. So­ci­ety not only ac­cepted the pro­ject, but there were 2,600 in­dica- tions of in­ter­est dur­ing the qual­i­fy­ing ex­ams,” says the dean of the fac­ulty, Mil­tiadis Kon­stanti­nou, adding, “It is very en­cour­ag­ing that there has been in­ter­est, be­cause it also negates the ar­gu­ment of all those who, in the pre­vi­ous year, claimed to be speak­ing on be­half of the com­mu­nity when they said they did not want the school to be­come a ji­hadist strong­hold.”

One of the ob­jec­tives of the course – per­haps the most im­por­tant – is to train stu­dents who will go on to teach Is­lamic the­ol­ogy in the pub­lic schools of the Mus­lim mi­nor­ity in Thrace, north­east­ern Greece. There are no Thra­cian Mus­lims in the pro­gram at the mo­ment.

The rea­sons, ac­cord­ing to the chair of the depart­ment, Pana­gi­o­tis Skalt­sis, lie both in the pro­pa­ganda of ex­trem­ist Mus­lims and – mainly – be­cause there was no quota for stu­dents from the mi­nor­ity group this year.

“Based on the lat­est in­for­ma­tion, a quota will be agreed to help mi­nor­ity stu­dents to join the new course. It will be a vin­di­ca­tion for us if we can ed­u­cate young peo­ple who will teach the Qu­ran in pub­lic schools in­stead of oth­ers from re­li­gious schools in Saudi Ara­bia,” he said.

As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor An­ge­liki Zi­aka is the sci­en­tific co­or­di­na­tor of the course.

“The Is­lamic stud­ies course aims to pro­vide sci­en­tific train­ing for the re­li­gion of Is­lam and the themes that ex­ist within the um­brella of Is­lam (cul­tural, lin­guis­tic, in­ter­pre­ta­tive). Se­condly, stu­dents learn many things about Greek Or­tho­dox Chris­tian the­ol­ogy too, and thus learn crit­i­cal think­ing in fa­vor of di­a­logue and un­der­stand­ing and be­come aware of how Or­tho­doxy sur­vived many cen­turies of Is­lam. Thirdly, armed with Ara­bic lan­guage skills, th­ese stu­dents can act as a body of spe­cial­ists.”

The Ara­bic lan­guage is taught as a main part of the course and the Qu­ran is tem­po­rar­ily be­ing taught by an Ital­ian pro­fes­sor from the Dem­ocri­tus Univer­sity of Thrace, Marco Miotto, an Is­lamic his­tory grad­u­ate, and as Pro­fes­sor Zi­aka ex­plains, they have al­ready opened po­si­tions for qual­i­fied teach­ing staff, which she hopes Greek Mus­lim scien- tists will come for­ward to fill as well.

And what can a young per­son on the Is­lamic stud­ies course ex­pect in terms of pro­fes­sional prospects?

Pro­fes­sor Niki Pa­pa­geor­giou, vice pres­i­dent of the The­o­log­i­cal School, says: “At the start the stu­dents were con­cerned about what they would do af­ter­ward. With the Ara­bic lan­guage alone, the grad­u­ates will be sought af­ter, while in re­la­tion to the the­olo­gians that the course will pro­duce, they will have many more op­por­tu­ni­ties. They can be de­ployed in the diplo­matic ser­vices, sec­tors deal­ing with refugees or work as jour­nal­ists. In any case one can­not ig­nore the study of Is­lam any­more, es­pe­cially since we ex­ist in ge­o­graphic prox­im­ity to the Arabs. This was miss­ing from Greece while it was taught else­where in Europe. A full and in-depth course on all as­pects of po­lit­i­cal, so­cial and re­li­gious stud­ies is be­ing of­fered for the first time.”

Apart from those who en­tered the course through na­tional univer­sity qual­i­fi­ca­tion ex­ams, grad­u­ates from other schools also ex­pressed an in­ter­est. In to­tal, 20 doc­tors, sol­diers and en­gi­neers sat ex­ams for four places.

Chrysa Ama­na­tiadis grad­u­ated from the Fine Arts School in Florence and worked for 13 years as a teacher. Then she sat ex­ams for a place on the Is­lamic stud­ies course.

“I think it’s very in­ter­est­ing to learn a range of re­li­gious sub­jects, be­cause now, in most schools, we have many stu­dents who are Mus­lim,” she says, while Va­gia Skon­dra, a his­tory grad­u­ate from the Fac­ulty of Phi­los­o­phy who also holds an MA in ed­u­ca­tion, be­lieves that “it is a great op­por­tu­nity to learn what the true face of Is­lam is and not what we re­ceive via the me­dia.”

While the course is now run­ning, it was re­vealed that fresh com­plaints were filed with the Coun­cil of State, the coun­try’s high­est ad­min­is­tra­tive court, seek­ing to shut it down.

“It doesn’t mat­ter. We have a democ­racy, but I don’t think there is a coun­cil of state in the world that would dare to in­ter­fere with what sub­jects are taught at a univer­sity,” the dean said.

The to­tal num­ber of stu­dents who de­clared an in­ter­est in the course dur­ing the na­tional univer­sity place­ment ex­ams was 2,600.

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