Religion & Ethics Newsweekly punts on Zaytuna College coverage

I’ve been following Religion & Ethics Newsweekly since its inception nearly 20 years ago as only TV news magazine totally devoted to religion. Over that time period, this show has won a ton of awards and the members of the team have done yeoman reporting on far scantier budgets than what any of the Big 3 networks operate on. Their broadcasts are carried on PBS stations.

Thus, I was interested in a recent piece they had on Zaytuna College, the only Islamic liberal arts institution in the United States.

You see, about 12 years ago, I was assigned a series by the Washington Times on the phenomena of fast-growing conservative religious institutions in academia and I scouted around for a Muslim example. But in 2003, there was nothing out there. Today there is.

However, the piece in R&E seemed short on any critical perspective. Instead, it felt like some very timely PR in the light of recent Muslim-inspired terrorism only a few hundred miles from the campus. Here’s the beginning of the transcript of the 8 ½ -minute segment:

LUCKY SEVERSON, correspondent: This is Zaytuna College, located on what is called Holy Hill in Berkeley, California. It’s unique because Zaytuna is the very first accredited Muslim liberal arts college in the United States, and one of the few in the world. Zaytuna was cofounded 5 years ago by internationally acclaimed Islamic scholar Sheikh Hamza Yusuf.
SHEIKH HAMZA YUSUF: We all felt that really what we needed was not so much a seminary, but more of a liberal arts college, because a lot of the problems in religious education today is that it is solely religious education, and so the type of person that it produces is often not as well-rounded as is necessary to fully integrate religion into a society.
SEVERSON: Sheikh Hamza Yusuf grew up in California with a Roman Catholic father and a Greek Orthodox mother. He was taught to be a seeker and converted to Islam as a young man who then journeyed to the Middle East to study under some of the world’s top Islamic scholars…
DEAN MAHAN MIRZA: Muslims need to be grounded in their own tradition. They need to inherit great ideas of the past, not just from Islamic civilization but from Western civilization in general, because we are in America. You don’t have to go very far to realize or recognize that the two are actually part of the same heritage. They’re not two different legacies. What we feel we are doing is reviving what the liberal arts tradition was within Islam.
SEVERSON: All students are required to learn Arabic so they can go on to study the classics.
DEAN MIRZA: Then they take mathematics, astronomy, and the history of science, economics, philosophy, ethics, and politics.

The broadcast continues with Muslim and non-Muslim faculty alike plus students all extolling the virtues of this school.

But some key details were missing. Having been in academia recently, I knew that accreditation often takes a decade or so at least. However, this institution only took five years to get accredited. How is that? The R&E piece offered few details.

I found a USA Today piece about the college that came out last spring, which was when Zaytuna got accredited. That piece added a few details, such as Zaytuna only offering one degree: a bachelor’s in Islamic law and theology. That’s more like a seminary than a liberal arts school and in fact, it used to be a seminary. Students are required to take five years of Arabic, USA Today added, which made me wonder how anyone can finish studies there in the four-year sequence typical of many liberal arts colleges.

Religion & Ethics also said nothing about who is funding Zaytuna other than “the Muslim community” is contributing $30 million a year. The college itself has said (on its site) there are 12,000 donors but $30 million is a lot even from that many folks. And considering there’s been a lot of PR in the past decade about huge grants to U.S. schools by Saudi financiers wishing to underwrite Muslim studies programs, more questions should be asked. I did a piece in late 2007 about Saudi gifts to large American universities, and I haven’t been the only person writing about that topic.

If a foreign government is contributing to Zaytuna, that’s not info that the institution may want out. R&E says tuition is $15,000 a year, which is darn low for a place in southern California. So yes, those 60 students are definitely getting some help.

Also, what sort of dress code is there? I only saw one unveiled woman on the broadcast, so I am curious about whether men and women alike are held to certain modesty standards. Plus something else the program added brought up red flags:

SEVERSON: This is, after all, an Islamic school. Sheikh Yusuf says the goal of Zaytuna is to restore Islamic education to what is was a 1,000 years ago when Jewish, Christian and Muslims scholars worked together.

But was medieval Spain really that tolerant? It's not even clear to the New York Times what a trifecta of Muslim-Christian-Jewish scholarship may have looked like back then. Even if this golden age of tolerance were a fact, is Zaytuna really soliciting Jewish and Christian involvement?

I know that many people are eager to see positive news pieces about U.S. Muslims but at the same time, let’s ask the right questions. The American Thinker calls the puff pieces on Zaytuna "hype" and has pointed out other questions, along with the point that a one-degree program does not a liberal arts college make. A New Yorker piece two years ago asked different questions but at least filled in a few blanks. As the first of its kind in the country, Zaytuna should expect to get tough questions and R&E should have lobbed at least a few.

Sheikh Yusuf photo courtesy of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

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