THE first university course on Muslim society in modern Britain will begin in September at Cardiff University.
The Welsh capital is an appropriate location for the course, as Cardiff has one of Britain's oldest Muslim communities.
"Long before places like Bradford and Oldham hit the headlines, Cardiff had a significant Muslim community," said Sophie Gilliat-Ray, who is establishing the new postgraduate course on Islam in Contemporary Britain.
"You can see the whole history of Muslims in Britain mapped out in Cardiff. There's no better place to learn about it."
The course is part of a new Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK, which aims to provide high-profile lectures from internationally-recognised experts in the field.
This initiative follows growth in the number of people wanting to study issues related to Islam and the Middle East at Welsh universities after the terrorist attacks on the US in 2001.
Dr Gilliat-Ray said that that interest was not part of the rationale for her new course, but added, "The numbers registering for our undergraduate module on Islam in the Contemporary World rocketed post-9/11. It's good if people come on courses and learn about religion in the modern world and how religion gets abused, often by people who don't understand their own faith."
The new course will focus on social issues facing members of Muslim communities in Britain such as faith schools, the row over Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses, the place of women in the British Muslim community, and the difficulties and disaffection experienced by many Muslim youths.
The course was prompted by inquiries from people seeking a deeper understanding of such issues.
"One imam said he doesn't understand what's happening to Muslim youths. A lot of them suffer from disproportionate levels of discrimination and low educational achievement. The Muslim community is struggling with it as much as some other faith communities are."
Some of the interest in the subject is coming from outside the Muslim communities.
"We've already had an inquiry from a Methodist minister in Butetown who wants to understand more about what's happening in the Muslim community there."
Dr Gilliat-Ray is excited at the prospect of the new centre bringing together people from different faiths.
"Some of the research is showing now that some of the most dynamic imams in Britain are forging strong alliances with Christian clergy who understand Islam. If you have Christian clergy understanding something about the Muslim community, it's much easier to form relationships and create dialogues and trust across communities."
There are practical outcomes for students who complete the new course, either as a diploma or an MA.
"Islam has become more institutionalised in British society," said Dr Gilliat-Ray, who studied general theology at the University of Wales, Lampeter, where she also did her PhD research on Islam in Britain.
"There are more jobs for people with knowledge of Islam, such as working in the race relations industry. The Home Office is setting up a Faith Communities Unit and is looking for people who understand about Muslim communities in Britain."
The postgraduate students are likely to be a mixture of people from white Christian backgrounds and people from Muslim backgrounds. The former may outnumber the latter.
"A lot of parents of Muslim children encourage them to go into established professions such as medicine, pharmacy, law and accountancy, and don't encourage them to go to the humanities and social sciences. This course is a way of saying we need to start engaging with some of the other issues in the community."
Students will not have to be Muslims themselves or be able to speak relevant languages such as Arabic. But they will have to produce original research as a result of interviews with Muslims, or focus group studies with British Muslims to develop their understanding of Islam on modern Britain.
Details are available at www.cardiff.ac.uk/relig/islam-uk.