Muslim studies centre first in North America

November 30, 2006, volume 37, no. 7
By Stuart Colcleugh

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SFU has established North America's first Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures to encourage greater awareness and understanding of the wide range of Muslim societies throughout the world.

"SFU is particularly fertile ground for this centre," says SFU President Michael Stevenson. "We have already a very strong program in Middle Eastern and Islamic history, an endowed lectureship in Iranian and Persian studies, courses in Persian, and soon, Arabic and other languages. These activities form a strong base for building an internationally recognized centre for scholarship that embraces the full diversity of Muslim societies and cultures."

Private donors have pledged more than $2 million of the $5.5-million endowment required to create and sustain the centre, including $1 million from Amin Lalji and family, and $250,000 from SFU Board of Governors chair Saida Rasul and her husband Firoz. The university will provide as much as $2.5 million in matching funds.

The new centre will be part of the faculty of arts and social sciences. It will support distinguished visiting scholars, annual scholarly conferences and public lecture series, student scholarships for international study, expanded library holdings and language programs in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu.

Muslim societies and cultures have increasingly become the focus of public and academic attention, particularly since 9/11. Much of the discussion has centred too narrowly on Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, says the centre's acting director, SFU historian Derryl MacLean. "The variability and flexibility of Muslim practices and perspectives have not featured in this discourse, leaving the public largely unaware of complexities, achievements and challenges."

The new centre will work to redress that imbalance, says MacLean, by broadening the discussion to include more comparison and complexity in the study of Muslim societies and cultures from Africa, through the Arab and Persian world, and into Asia and the West.

"By focusing on Muslim, not Islamic, studies we hope to encourage a shift in analysis away from the idea of Islam as some unitary religious entity to a more complex view of Muslims as agents in the construction of their own history."

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