“Do I look like a terrorist to you?” asks Yiannis, laughing. He had no facial hair, just an earring in his right ear. He looked like a happy teenager, full of life and a deep thirst for learning. The same was true for Athanasia, a cheerful blond sitting next to him.
Yiannis Palamidis and Athanasia Avramoglou are students in the new Undergraduate Program of Islamic Studies at the Theological School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, the first of its kind in Greece, which was launched – amid fierce criticism from the ecclesiastical world – this academic year.
Together with 25 other young people, they comprise the first batch of students to enter the program which opponents call a “breeding ground for Islamic extremism,” where the theology of Quranic Islam, the traditions and its schools are taught in a scientific way and with a critical approach. Elements of Arab culture and language, and Orthodox theology are also part of the course.
“The experience is interesting, I have no bias with the culture and the religion of these people. When I read about the course, it mentioned interesting things, so pursued it and got in. It is something new and innovative. I thought it would be useful later for business with the Arab world, diplomacy and more. As for the critics, they were in a hurry to judge before seeing exactly what it was,” says Yiannis.
“I was interested in the Balkan studies course, and when I learned about the Islamic studies course, I said, ‘Wow, what’s this?’ My parents encouraged me to go for it, which I don’t regret. My friends cautiously accepted it at the start, but then they too found it interesting. I made a good choice,” adds Athanasia.
The total number of students who declared an interest in the Islamic studies course during the national university placement exams came to 2,600, defying the voices of disapproval warning that the course would be a graduate school for terrorists.
When in February 2014 the university’s senate decided by an overwhelming majority to launch the course, the backlash began. Some members of the clergy unleashed their fury from the pulpit, despite the fact that the archbishop of Athens did not oppose the course and neither did the four bishops of Thrace. A number of both academics and non-academics appealed to the State Council, which approved the course regardless.
At the time, Minister of Macedonia and Thrace Giorgos Orfanos criticized plans for the course, saying it would be wrong to mix the study of Orthodox faith with “something else.”
“In the end, the terrorists didn’t materialize. Society not only accepted the project, but there were 2,600 indications of interest during the qualifying exams,” says the dean of the faculty, Miltiadis Konstantinou, adding, “It is very encouraging that there has been interest, because it also negates the argument of all those who, in the previous year, claimed to be speaking on behalf of the community when they said they did not want the school to become a jihadist stronghold.”
One of the objectives of the course – perhaps the most important – is to train students who will go on to teach Islamic theology in the public schools of the Muslim minority in Thrace, northeastern Greece. There are no Thracian Muslims in the program at the moment.
The reasons, according to the chair of the department, Panagiotis Skaltsis, lie both in the propaganda of extremist Muslims and – mainly – because there was no quota for students from the minority group this year.
“Based on the latest information, a quota will be agreed to help minority students to join the new course. It will be a vindication for us if we can educate young people who will teach the Quran in public schools instead of others from religious schools in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Associate Professor Angeliki Ziaka is the scientific coordinator of the course.
“The Islamic studies course aims to provide scientific training for the religion of Islam and the themes that exist within the umbrella of Islam (cultural, linguistic, interpretative). Secondly, students learn many things about Greek Orthodox Christian theology too, and thus learn critical thinking in favor of dialogue and understanding and become aware of how Orthodoxy survived many centuries of Islam. Thirdly, armed with Arabic language skills, these students can act as a body of specialists.”
The Arabic language is taught as a main part of the course and the Quran is temporarily being taught by an Italian professor from the Democritus University of Thrace, Marco Miotto, an Islamic history graduate, and as Professor Ziaka explains, they have already opened positions for qualified teaching staff, which she hopes Greek Muslim scientists will come forward to fill as well.
And what can a young person on the Islamic studies course expect in terms of professional prospects?
Professor Niki Papageorgiou, vice president of the Theological School, says: “At the start the students were concerned about what they would do afterward. With the Arabic language alone, the graduates will be sought after, while in relation to the theologians that the course will produce, they will have many more opportunities. They can be deployed in the diplomatic services, sectors dealing with refugees or work as journalists. In any case one cannot ignore the study of Islam anymore, especially since we exist in geographic proximity to the Arabs. This was missing from Greece while it was taught elsewhere in Europe. A full and in-depth course on all aspects of political, social and religious studies is being offered for the first time.”
Apart from those who entered the course through national university qualification exams, graduates from other schools also expressed an interest. In total, 20 doctors, soldiers and engineers sat exams for four places.
Chrysa Amanatiadis graduated from the Fine Arts School in Florence and worked for 13 years as a teacher. Then she sat exams for a place on the Islamic studies course.
“I think it’s very interesting to learn a range of religious subjects, because now, in most schools, we have many students who are Muslim,” she says, while Vagia Skondra, a history graduate from the Faculty of Philosophy who also holds an MA in education, believes that “it is a great opportunity to learn what the true face of Islam is and not what we receive via the media.”
While the course is now running, it was revealed that fresh complaints were filed with the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, seeking to shut it down.
“It doesn’t matter. We have a democracy, but I don’t think there is a council of state in the world that would dare to interfere with what subjects are taught at a university,” the dean said.