In a front corner of a Schaeffer Hall classroom, University of Iowa junior Sam Dennis sat at a desk scribbling notes about Israeli-U.S. relations during a recent Introduction to Politics in the Middle Eastern World class.
"This is not a political issue. The difference is in the amount of assistance to Israel versus the lack of assistance to inhabitants of Palestinian territories," political science professor Vicki Hesli lectured to the students. "What is important for this class is how Arab states perceive this."
Middle Eastern studies are the most relevant topic in political science today, Dennis said after the class.
"Ignorance and negligence in the situation, there will be a detriment to American society and what is going on," said Dennis, a 23-year-old who has taken three courses in Islamic studies recently.
Interest in the subject appears to be surging, UI officials said. Students want to better understand the culture, politics and religion of a world that the U.S. has been at odds with in recent years, from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and potential future conflicts with countries such as Iran and Syria.
Since 9/11, UI has made a concerted effort to meet the growing demand. Officials have increased the opportunities to dive into the subject by offering more courses, hiring more specialized professors, bringing in more guest speakers and creating study abroad opportunities. There are now 23 faculty in the two-year-old Middle Eastern and Muslim World Studies program.
"I think the student interest has been there since 9/11," Hesli said. "The university is finally responding. The students see a particular event, whether it be 9/11 or construction of an embassy in Kenya, and they want to know why did that happen."