Fulbright Scholar Stories | David William Damrel

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David William Damrel

Assistant Professor, Department of History, Political Science, Philosophy and American Studies, University of South Carolina--Upstate, Spartanburg, SC
Lecturing: Comparative Religion Program Development
Muhammadiyah University of Malang, Malang, Indonesia
January 2008 - July 2008

David Damrel and one of his classes in Malang, Indonesia

Dr. David Damrel, assistant professor of religion at the University of South Carolina Upstate, returned to the classroom on the Spartanburg campus after having spent seven months in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world. There he taught never-before-offered courses in Comparative Religion, a unique and challenging experience in a country that officially recognizes only five religions – Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Catholicism, and Protestantism.

A prestigious Fulbright Award enabled Damrel, a specialist in Islam, to teach and help develop a Comparative Religion program at Muhammadiyah University, an institution with more than18,000 students located in the city of Malang, in the province of East Java.

The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries, the Fulbright Scholar Program continues to be regarded by many as one of our country's best foreign diplomacy policies.

While at Muhammadiyah University, Damrel’s courses included World Religions, Modern Islam, Islam and International Relations, and a graduate seminar entitled, Topics in Comparative Religion.

Muhammadiyah University, with campuses throughout Indonesia, is interested in offering training in the academic study of religions. This made Damrel’s Fulbright Scholarship visit such a perfect fit.

“Their goal is to develop classes that teach about religions instead of how to be religious,” said Damrel.

Although Indonesia has by far the largest Muslim population in the world, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and indigenous religions are still social factors. Many of Damrel’s students were secondary education majors who will work in high schools as policy makers upon graduation.

“All of my undergraduate level classes were full and my graduate level classes reached 15 students,” said Damrel. “The students were very excited to be exposed to a new style of education.”

Damrel explained that the culture of education in Southeast Asia calls for students to be very respectful of the lecturer and that means they ask few, if any questions. He was glad that once his students become comfortable with him that they became engaged and active and had questions.

“Once the students reached a certain comfort level, it was as good a classroom experience as a professor would have anywhere in the world,” said Damrel, who hopes the University can model future comparative religion courses based on his curriculum. “The students became connected with the classes, and we had very good dialogue and exchange. I learned a lot from them, and I hope they learned something from me.”

Now that Damrel is back on the USC Upstate campus, the students here are benefiting from his teaching experience in Southeast Asia.  He is incorporating examples and slides in his lectures. USC Upstate students are hearing first-hand accounts of the Muslim shrines and Buddhist and Hindu temples that Damrel visited and see photos of the neighborhood where he and his wife, the curator of the herbarium at Clemson University, lived during their stay in Indonesia.

“There is such an interesting and profound connection between religion and culture, and I enjoy sharing that with my students,” said Damrel, who researches shrines and the practice of visitation to the graves of Muslim holy men and holy women. “In Indonesia almost every city has a grave of a holy person that people visit for comfort or to ask for miracles. Nine times out of ten of the ‘saints’ were Muslims, but the shrines attract people of all faiths.  The social environments around these saints’ graves are wonderful miniature examples of what can happen when religious people cooperate.”

Damrel is a native Texan and started out as a journalism major at the University of Texas at Austin. As an undergraduate he had a chance to study overseas for a year at the University of Isfahan in Iran where he studied Farsi and Iranian history, culture and religion.

“I was lucky enough to get to travel all over Iran and spend some significant time in Afghanistan too,” said Damrel. “This was just before both the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Because of my experiences in Iran and Afghanistan, when I returned to the University of Texas I finished my journalism degree plus a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies. I was especially interested in the way that religious ideas affect culture and history, as well as how culture and history affect religious ideas.”

Following graduation from UT Austin, Damrel and his wife Dixie moved to North Carolina where he earned a Ph.D. in the history of religions at Duke University. He studied the history of 'popular' Islam in South Asia, with a focus on mysticism and Muslim 'saints' in Kashmir. He and his wife made several research trips to India and Pakistan, as well as other parts of the Muslim world including Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Tajikistan. When he finished at Duke they moved to Oxford, UK, where he was a research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies.

“We lived in England for just over two years where I was part of a team working on an atlas of Muslim life and thought in South Asia,” said Damrel. “When we came back to the U.S. we moved to Arizona, where I taught for 10 years in the Department of Religious Studies at Arizona State University in Tempe. When USC Upstate began the initiative to expand their offerings in Comparative Religion, I was delighted by the opportunity to come here and get to be part of building something special.” Written by Tammy Whaley, Director of Communications at Upsate.