SHU Professor Chosen for Teaching About Terrorism Fellowship

News Story: May 23, 2007

Sacred Heart University Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Matthew Semel first flew to Israel with his wife in the summer of 1992, and the couple celebrated their Jewish faith during the trip by visiting the ancient city of Jerusalem – where they saw Muslims among the crowds of worshipers.

Semel noticed many similarities in Israelis and Palestinians, reminding him of a popular Israeli song of how the Israeli city of Ramat Gan and the Palestinian city of Jenin both have the same beautiful sky. But the relationship between the neighbors has been anything but peaceful. Territorial and religious differences have long been highlighted by violent attacks, counter-attacks and suicide bombings.

“We’re all children of Abraham, so we’re fighting our cousins and brothers and sisters,” Semel said. “It’s a situation that seemed incapable of being resolved. I wanted to understand more about it.”

Semel studied counter-terrorism in Israel last year and was chosen to participate in a fellowship, SWOTT (Summer Workshop on Teaching about Terrorism), to be held at the University of Maryland this June. He hopes education and research will uncover the root causes of terrorism in the U.S. and abroad – and stop the violence. Since 9/11, those calling for studies on why America was attacked were often accused of sympathizing with terrorists, but Semel said this is not true.

“I’m not justifying this,” he said. “Nothing can justify going into a shopping mall and blowing yourself up or hijacking a plane and flying it into the World Trade Center. But I think it’s important for us to know the hows and whys about this.”

The eight-day long SWOTT fellowship, running from June 4 to 12, was developed as an intensive short-course on the fundamentals of terrorism. Academics learn new techniques used to teach terrorism and gain access to high-level officials working in the intelligence and counter-terrorism fields. The workshop covers issues that dominate U.S. foreign policy, classic works on terrorism, and features speakers who are experts in the field.

Education can debunk popular misconceptions, such as the belief that poverty and disenfranchisement drive people to commit deadly acts. Semel learned male terrorists tend to be middle to upper middle class and are often well-educated. A columnist in the New York Times surveyed U.S. government officials about the differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, where they live, and other questions about many terrorists’ backgrounds. “Leaders of our country didn’t know [the answers],” Semel said. “That’s not a good thing.”

By contrast, SWOTT can help Semel to ensure his students at SHU are well informed. 

“It’s designed for teaching in a creative and active way,” he said, “so I hope it helps my teaching, because I really love my students here and want to be the best teacher I can be.”