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International Insight

Written by Heather Eady
3/20/2009

Ithaca professor of politics and program director Asma Barlas

The international background of politics professor Asma Barlas does more than just contribute to her teaching style -- it’s a big part of what she teaches. In and out of the classroom, Barlas challenges her Ithaca College counterparts to examine their beliefs and assumptions and view the world through a global lens.

Barlas grew up in Pakistan and studied English literature and philosophy before becoming a career diplomat in the Pakistani Foreign Service. Only the 13th woman to join, she was later fired for criticizing a military leader. She then worked for a leading opposition newspaper until she came to the United States to attend graduate school. She now has political asylum in the United States.

A professor at the College for over 15 years, Barlas teaches a variety of politics courses, many of which focus on the Middle East, colonialism, and  third-world politics. She emphasizes discussion rather than lecture in her classes and criticizes the idea that students are empty banks into which teachers make deposits of knowledge. “We engage in a process of dialogue with each other,” she explains.

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Willyann King ’09 took Politics and Identity with Professor Barlas and recommends her classes to other students who want to be challenged and open their minds. “It’s useful for students to have teachers who can bring a different perspective,” King says, observing that Barlas doesn’t seem held back by what other people think. “I think she’s sort of fearless in a way.”

Fellow politics professor Naeem Inayatullah has known Barlas since graduate school and describes her as an interesting mix of opposite traits. “She’s a very social, warm, inviting person, but she won’t let you get away with an inch in any argument. She will challenge you on every last thing, every last assumption,” he says. “I think it’s important not to underestimate the incredible obstacles that she has overcome.”

A passionate and often controversial scholar of Islam, Barlas has presented her work in coun­tries including India, Indonesia, Egypt, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands. Her trip to Indonesia to promote her book “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an was especially gratifying for her because so many Muslims there were open to her ideas. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country, but most Americans associate Muslims only with the Middle East.

Speaking at the University of Amsterdam (photo courtesy of Asma Barlas)

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Professor Barlas continues to travel to promote her reinterpretation of the Qur’an. She proposes a reading that supports gender equality -- a reading that has been controversial especially among Muslim men, who gain power from the current understanding of the text. But Barlas believes all people should be able to analyze the Qur’an. “No text has only one possible meaning,” she explains.

This bold work has impressed students like Marah Nudel ’08. “Addressing the topic of sexist Muslim practice requires knowledge and drive that many either do not possess or are afraid to show,” Nudel observes. “It seems as though Professor Barlas may be doing a lot to help people who are otherwise unspoken for.”

In addition to publishing numerous books and articles, Professor Barlas founded the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity at Ithaca College in 1999. The center functions as a department within the College and supports the study of racial and ethnic groups that have tradi­tionally been marginalized, underrepresented, or misrepresented in our society. “I would like to see issues of race become more mainstream,” Professor Barlas says. Work at the center aims to incorporate these issues into the IC experience through academic activities, an annual lecture series, and two minors in the Division of Interdisciplinary and International Studies: African diaspora and Latina/o studies.

Farther from home, the University of Amsterdam named Professor Barlas as its Spinoza Chair last summer, making her the first Muslim to receive this honor. While in Amsterdam as a distinguished visiting scholar, Barlas taught a graduate class, gave two public lectures, and participated in a debate with a male Qur’an scholar who disagrees with her views on women’s rights. “It was a very rich, complex experience,” she says.

Professor Barlas is a role model who shows students how to challenge conventional view­points and speak passionately about equality and tolerance. As a scholar and teacher, her international experience brings a global con­sciousness to her students and helps them realize the ramifications of living on a planet with many cultures. As the world’s citizens become more like neighbors, these lessons couldn’t be more valuable or timely.



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