Teaching Jihad

, Amanda Winkler, Leave a comment

Barak Mendelsohn, assistant professor of Political Science at Haverford College, teaches several classes concerning Jihadism and the War on Terror. He is also the author of Combating Jihadism: American Hegemony and International Cooperation in the War on Terrorism as well as a senior fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute.

His three courses, entitled “The Evolution of the Jihadi Movement,”  “Introduction to Terrorism Studies,” and “War on Terrorism” are designed to prepare students to critique arguments from an analytical perspective rather than a political one. In doing so, Mendelsohn said, they realize that no one answer is necessarily correct. “It is important to be straightforward and tell them [the students] that they are likely to be less confident in any one clear view of the problem or its solution,” Mendelsohn writes in his Teaching About Jihadism and the War on Terror essay, “they will, though, gain a more comprehensive understanding of the topics’ intricacies and complexities, and a recognition and understanding of different viewpoints.”

Mendelsohn admits that there is a challenge in overcoming students’ lack of prior knowledge on this topic. Their knowledge of history, he said, is “deficient and their familiarity with Islam and its history is basically non-existent.” However, he overcomes this challenge by giving a short background introduction on Islam and assigning books on the history of the religion.

Another challenge, according to Mendelsohn, is finding primary sources on his topics.  Primary sources, such as statements by al Qaeda leaders, are useful in teaching students the discourse by jihadists and the arguments they use. He likes using primary sources because it allows students to “get their hands dirty and form ideas” instead of just relying on the arguments of scholars. However, most of these primary sources have been labeled as classified, making it extremely difficult for teachers and researchers to obtain.

Despite the challenges, Mendelsohn states that teaching about this topic is not only important but satisfying to him. By learning about terrorism, Mendelsohn hopes that students will become more aware of this phenomenon that has – since Sept 11 – become a normal part of everyday life. Teaching these topics, Mendelsohn said, is a way to contribute to making students better citizens.

Amanda Winkler is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail mal.kline@academia.org