Together with colleagues in the Department of Political Studies at Bar Ilan University, I have established a new, international, online MA in Religion and Middle Eastern Politics. Taught entirely online and in English, this degree is open to students anywhere in the world. I am keen to spread the word and explain the rationale about this exciting new program.
I have been studying religion and politics as well as Middle Eastern politics since I was in graduate school in the 1990s. At that time, the academic study of religion and politics was, with some important exceptions, mostly focused on US politics and, to a lesser extent, European politics. Interestingly, academics studying the Middle East, the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam also paid scant attention to religion and politics in the region.
My focus – the study of religion in an international studies context, which combines international relations with the comparison of patterns of domestic religious politics across the globe – was unusual back then. At my first International Studies Association conference in 1995, mine was the only paper, of which I was aware, that dealt with religion in any way. Major academic political science rarely published articles that addressed religion.
Since then, the field of religion and politics has grown and flourished. Especially since the turn of the millennium, there has been an increasing recognition on how religious ideas and actors have influenced national and international politics, especially in the Middle East. For some time, I had been feeling the lack of a graduate academic program that focuses on these phenomena.
This feeling of a gap in the academic training available combined with two other factors that made possible this new online MA program, which I head, at Bar Ilan University.
First, while most of our students are secular, the university has a special focus on Judaism and religion. Bar Ilan boasts the largest and most productive Jewish Studies department in the world, and across the social sciences and humanities, Bar-Ilan University has experts on religion in their various academic disciplines. In Political Studies, eight of our department members include religion and politics among their specializations. As we are in the Middle East, unsurprisingly, the majority of our 20 department members also engage in research on the Middle East and Israel. Thus, my department likely has the greatest concentration in the world of scholars of Middle Eastern and religious politics.
Second, while the COVID crisis has had some truly horrible consequences, it has catalyzed the process of moving higher education online. Thus, a fully online program that may have had difficulty attracting students in the past is now a real possibility. As the program does not require travel to Israel, it can be truly international. In fact, we hope that by being online, this program can bring together students from across the world with a shared interest in this important subject and that it can increase understanding not only of this academic topic, but also between students from different backgrounds.
The program explores the potential of religions to unite and divide societies, to exacerbate conflict or provide frameworks for peace. It provides a sound foundation in the politics of the Middle East as well as general political science theory and methodology. Whether you are planning a career in academia, policy research, diplomacy, conflict resolution, or the clergy, or you simply have a passion to understand the political, historical, and social forces that shape our world, this program is for you.