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Last modified: Thursday, June 28, 2007

Understanding the rich diversity of the Middle East

June 28, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- About 80 faculty members at Indiana University's Bloomington campus have research or professional interests in the Middle East. They can be found from the Kelley School of Business to the Jacobs School of Music and in many specialized areas as well, such as designing national health care plans and government administration. The new director of IU's Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Program hopes to involve as many of them as possible in the program's future activities.

Jaques image

Photo by: Chris Meyer

R. Kevin Jaques

Print-Quality Photo

Interest in the Middle East region has soared among both faculty and students, said R. Kevin Jaques, associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies, who will begin his duties as director of MEISP on July 1.

"The number of students of Arabic at IU has skyrocketed recently," said Jaques (pronounced Jakes).

"These days, to most people the Middle East means two things: oil and Islam," he added. "MEISP is here to help members of the IU community and the public develop appreciation for the great diversity and richness of the region. Islam can be understood not just as a religion but as a society and a culture. It can serve as a bridge to the many other cultural aspects of the region."

Jaques is planning a workshop for personnel directors in Indiana on the needs of Muslim employees, such as dress requirements and dietary restrictions, providing time for prayers, and, in some job settings, how to deal with intoxicated customers. These issues are complicated by the diversity of the Muslim world, he said.

"There is great diversity among Muslims, and it's not just the difference between Sunnis and Shiites," he said. "There are, for example, ethnic and linguistic differences among Muslims as well as differing cultural traditions that lead to different interpretations of what it means to be Muslim. Employers have to allow for that in working out solutions. They can't just say, 'All people who are Muslim must do this.'"

The history of Islamic law is one of Jaques' particular areas of expertise. The Arabic counterpart of "law" actually means "understanding of the will of God," he pointed out. It is flexible and rarely clear, referring to a range of acceptable practices that changes over time and in different cultural environments.

He noted that debates among medieval Islamic scholars were similar to debates among Muslims today -- the effects of drought, plague and invasions, whether change is good or bad, how to manage change, how to distinguish good change from bad.

Jaques also studies Islam in modern Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia, which, at 250 million people, is the world's largest Muslim country.

He emphasized that there is much more to the Middle East than most news reports reveal. One of his goals for IU's Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Program is to help people understand and appreciate that complex diversity, to realize that there is much that people in the Middle East share with people in Indiana and the rest of the United States.

"Fundamentally, we want to help members of the public, as well as students, staff and faculty, understand that people are people, and there is much that is shared in our common experience," he said. "We all want to live in peace, to have clean and safe neighborhoods and homes for our families, and for our children to be healthy and happy. Muslims and members of other religious traditions want these things, and by seeing the humanity in each other, hopefully we can promote better understanding of the Middle East and help resolve the difficulties afflicting the region."

R. Kevin Jaques can be reached at 812-855-6907 and For assistance contact Hal Kibbey at 812-855-0074 and