The study of the Middle East and Islam at New York University has a long and distinguished history which may well have begun with the university's founding in 1831. It is known that by 1837 the faculty included both a professor of Arabic, Syriac, Persian and Ethiopic, and a professor of Hebrew and Oriental languages; courses were offered in Arabic, Persian, biblical and rabbinic Hebrew, Chaldaic and Syriac. The Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures (NELL) was established in 1966; the late Professor R. Bayly Winder served as the department's first chair.
In 1973 the department moved into its present quarters at the corner of Washington Square South and Sullivan Street, in the newly-completed building (designed by Philip Johnson) which also houses the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies. NELL originally included faculty specializing in Hebrew and Judaic studies, but in 1986 the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies was established as a separate department. For some years NYU's Program in Religious Studies also operated under the aegis of NELL. To better reflect its changing composition and orientation, the department changed its name to Middle Eastern Studies during the 1995-96 academic year. In 2004, in recognition of the developing scholarly range of its faculty, its name was changed once again, to Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies – abbreviated as MEIS.
People at NYU and elsewhere often confuse the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies with the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies. In fact, though they share the same building and collaborate closely, the two are distinct entities.
The Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies is an academic department with its own faculty and offers an undergraduate major (and minor) as well as a graduate program leading to the Ph.D. In contrast, the Kevorkian Center is an area studies center, funded in part by the federal government through the Title VI program, whose mission is to encourage and coordinate teaching and research on the Middle East at NYU and to sponsor educational, informational and outreach programs for teachers, the general public and other people interested in the region. The Kevorkian Center also administers the Program in Near Eastern Studies (NES) leading to the M.A., as well as master's degrees with business, journalism and museum studies. The Kevorkian Center is not a department and has no tenured or tenure-track faculty of its own.
The Department of Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies’ Principles & Priorities
The Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (MEIS) at NYU acknowledges that the institution is located in the ancestral Lenape homelands and that New York City has the largest urban Native population in the United States. In addition to recognizing the enduring significance of these lands for Lenape nations, past and present, we strongly believe that historical awareness of Indigenous exclusion and erasure is critically important. MEIS is committed to participating in efforts to overcome the effect of these long-lasting policies within and beyond NYU.
In the same spirit, as scholars and teachers of the languages, histories, societies, cultures, religions and politics of the Middle East and North Africa and of other Muslim-majority societies, past and present, we recognize the complex origins, histories, and legacies of the fields in which we work. The academic study in the United States of these lands has too often been inflected by bias, unquestioned assumptions of civilizational difference and inferiority, and derogatory framings that have distorted scholarly understanding and contributed to the fostering of Islamophobia and of other discriminatory and racist attitudes toward people in the Middle East, as well as those of Middle Eastern origin in the United States. Moreover, the policies which the United States has pursued in this region, through military intervention, covert action, support for oppressive regimes, and other means, have often had pernicious, even catastrophic, consequences for those on the receiving end of American power, undermining the aspirations of the region’s peoples for self-determination, human rights, democracy, and a decent life. Much work remains to be done in the fields and disciplines in which we work in order to overcome the legacies of the past, including the continuing disparities of power and wealth which affect how knowledge about the Middle East is produced and disseminated. We are therefore committed, as scholars and teachers, not only to pursuing our work in keeping with the highest academic and pedagogical standards but also to standing in solidarity with the peoples of the region we study and their ongoing struggles against authoritarian and often brutal regimes, settler colonialism, external intervention, the denial of gender, ethnic and civic equality, social justice and political freedom.
MEIS at NYU is also dedicated to creating and promoting a diverse, equitable, and inclusive community with/for its faculty, students, and staff, who come from a variety of backgrounds, current circumstances, and personal and social identities. Diversity enriches the learning potential in our classrooms, inspires and enhances our research, and advances the social climate of our classes, the department, and the University. To sustain our efforts, we are genuinely committed to adapting practices in our scholarship and our classrooms to improve the participation and hence the contributions of persons who bring distinct perspectives and experiences to the pursuit of knowledge. Our departmental Diversity and Inclusion committee has the objective of facilitating our commitment within and beyond MEIS through conducting periodic surveys, organizing meetings and workshops, and soliciting feedback about the well-being of our community members. Concurrently, MEIS is committed to the curation of an educational space that challenges all forms of exclusion, including -- but not limited to -- racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia, as well as discrimination based on religion, sex, gender (identity or expression), sexual orientation, age, ability, citizenship status, class, political view, pregnancy, and parenthood.