IU’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures has ‘never been more relevant’

EDITOR’S NOTE: The origins of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures were the subject of a previous article.

Today, as the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures in Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies celebrates its 50th anniversary, there were moments when that milestone seemed less certain.

In 1979, at a time of financial uncertainty, budget cuts and concerns over declining enrollments, Bloomington campus administrators took a long and controversial look at reallocating portions of Near Eastern Languages and Literature into other academic units within the College of Arts and Sciences.

Victor Danner

Victor Danner

Kenneth Gros Louis, then dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and today university chancellor emeritus, acknowledged the concerns and by the following spring offered a proposal to retain the department, but with a new name and reinvigorated mission.

A new beginning

Through a new Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, would come a broader base of course offerings in history, political science, folklore, comparative literatures and Uralic and Altaic studies. A faculty committee also recommended adding the study of Persian and Turkish.

“The new department is basically a consolidation of resources in the College that deal with the Middle East,” Gros Louis told the Indiana Daily Student in April of 1980. “The proposal does everything I hoped it would. It proposes a method by which this area of study can be strengthened within our existing means.”

At their meeting on Nov. 8, 1980, IU trustees approved the name change. Victor Danner, an associate professor of Near Eastern languages and literatures and of religious studies, five months earlier became the person to chart its future as its new chair.

“We think the move (changes in the department) is very positive and the university, specifically Gros Louis, has been very supportive and optimistic,” Danner said in a May 1980 IDS story announcing his expected appointment.

Another pillar of the department

Today and alongside Wadie Elias Jwaideh, Danner is remembered as another champion for instruction of languages, literatures, religions, history, and cultures of the Arab world and the Middle East at IU.

Born in Mexico, Danner attended Georgetown University after World War II and traveled to Morocco after graduating magna cum laude in 1957. While there, he became director of the American Language Center and became more acquainted with classical Arabic texts.

He returned to the United States in 1964 and graduated with a doctorate from Harvard University six years later. He came to IU in 1967 as a professor of Arabic and religious studies, a position he held until his death in 1990.

Last year, the department launched a new master's degree track in Egyptology.

Last year, the department launched a new master’s degree track in Egyptology.

An internationally renowned scholar in the fields of Islamic mysticism, comparative religion and classical Arabic literature, Danner led the department for the next five years and — as others recall — was an enthusiastic supporter of the Middle Eastern studies program.

“His dignified bearing, elegant gestures, and verbal eloquence transformed his lectures into performances which had the power to captivate and inspire his students, whether he was discussing Arabic grammar or Islamic theology,” said one of his former students, Lauri King Irani.

“His concern for and encouragement of his students, coupled with his understated sense of humor, earned him a well-deserved reputation as a caring and committed educator who taught not only when behind the classroom lectern, but also by example,” she added.

The public is welcome to attend the 13th annual Victor Danner Memorial Lecture on Wednesday, April 15. Yahya Michot, professor of Islamic Thought and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary and co-editor of The Muslim World journal, will present the lecture. It will begin at 7:15 p.m. in the University Club of the Indiana Memorial Union, 900 E. Seventh St.

Departmental awards also will be presented at the Danner Lecture.

A vibrant department today

“It’s an exciting time,” said Asma Afsaruddin, current chair and professor of Near Eastern languages and cultures at IU Bloomington. “At a time when some Middle Eastern studies and programs are cutting back, we’ve actually grown.”

Today, the scholarly expertise of the department’s faculty members remains in great demand. Many are also public intellectuals who are often called upon to serve as consultants to governmental and non-governmental agencies, both at home and abroad.

Asma Afsaruddin

Asma Afsaruddin

Graduates enter careers in academia, foreign service, public and business administration. More than 200 students are enrolled in all levels of Arabic instruction and there are nearly 100 students enrolled in masters and doctoral programs.

It offers a joint MPA/MA degree with the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, a dual major PhD degree with the Center for Constitutional Democracy at the IU Maurer School of Law, and last year launched a new master’s degree track in Egyptology.

The size of its faculty also is growing. In the last five years, new full-time professors have been hired in Islamic studies and Egyptology, along with three new tenure-track faculty members in Arabic pedagogy, Israeli Studies and medieval Jewish history.

“The study of the Middle East and of Islam has never been more important and what we do together as a team of specialists on the Middle East has never been more relevant,” Afsaruddin said.

“Now being housed in the School of Global and International Studies also opens up other avenues and opportunities for growth, in ways that maybe we were not able to imagine before,” she added.

“The vision that Dr. Jwaidah had is increasingly being realized. I think he would have been very proud of us today.”

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