The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, abruptly refocused unfriendly U.S. attention to an area of the world most knew little and thought less about: the Middle East. Six years later, that interest has not grown more positive, but AU’s new Council on Middle Eastern Studies aims to change that.
School of International Service graduate students Anne Hamilton and Hala Hanna founded the Council on Middle Eastern Studies in fall 2006. The two met at an AU orientation that August, as Israeli bombs fell on the Lebanese capital of Beirut and Hezbollah fired rockets into the Israeli city of Haifa during the conflict between the nations.
Hanna, who is from Lebanon, said there was a dialogue on campus during the conflict, and a great deal of conversation about the war in Iraq, but Hamilton pointed out to her that there was a lack of formal student engagement among AU students.
“There was too much politics talk and not enough of the human experience talk,” Hanna said. “The diversity and openness of the Middle East were drowned by the current tension.”
Hanna and Hamilton decided to fill this void by creating the Council on Middle Eastern Studies, which they hoped would be a platform for this cross-cultural exchange and a more structured dialogue.
According to its mission statement on AU’s Student Activities Web site, the Council on Middle Eastern Studies’ purpose is to “foster fellowship among all people with a common interest in the Middle East region.” Among its goals are strengthening campus and local understanding of the Middle Eastern culture and issues, enhancing AU’s Middle Eastern area studies program and “revolutionizing” the way the area is viewed.
Hanna said that while it was great to see the group become successful, the most rewarding part of the Council on Middle Eastern Studies for her was the “sense of community” that has developed during events and biweekly meetings, which she called “constructive and transformative.”
The council’s biggest challenge thus far is communication, but it is very positive, according to Hanna, who is now the group’s communications director.
“Cross-cultural exchange is a challenge in a very positive way,” she said. “Dialogue is the solution.”
Hanna also said because of the polarization of the Middle Eastern region, it has been difficult at times to keep a “balanced” attitude and to represent all perspectives. Hanna said they had hesitated on navigating the balance between culture and politics in the group’s mission and goals, but they decided it was “inevitable” that both would be discussed.
Hanna said she felt the group has been successful thus far, generating a positive interest on campus, holding multiple events and becoming “a point of reference” on campus about Middle Eastern issues.
The founders of the Council on Middle Eastern Studies have big plans, she said. They would like to begin supporting AU students heading to the region for study abroad and to eventually help start new programs outside the U.S.
“A lot more remains to be done, and we have more ideas than time on our plates,” Hanna said.
The Council on Middle Eastern Studies has a Facebook group with 159 members as well as a blog that serves as a source of news on and from the Middle East.