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UHV students analyze terrorism, religion

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
Nov. 19, 2010 at 5:19 a.m.

In addition to using textbooks required for his online International Terrorism and Religious Violence class, Fontanella uses books from his personal library and a Kindle to download reading material about religion and terrorism to compare with his required reading.

Every evening after 4 p.m., graduate student Ryan Fontanella sits behind his computer screen and logs onto the University of Houston-Victoria Blackboard Intranet website.

It's there, from the comfort of his bedroom, he meets the rest of his classmates for an online discussion about international terrorism and religious violence.

"We go back-and-forth answering each other's questions, a lot of times we try to be humorous," the 27-year-old Fontanella said, clicking to open a discussion post. "We attempt to identify what terrorism is, and how it evolves."

Fontanella, a social studies teacher at Liberty Academy in Victoria, is pursuing a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies, with concentrations in history and homeland and international security.

With his online classmates, who participate in the course via the Internet from cities all over the country, Fontanella sets out to analyze the differences between religious and political violence, and survey theories on religious-inspired terrorism. The coursework, which includes mandatory online discussion posts and a series of in-depth writing assignments based on the course's three assigned textbooks, is completed on the Internet Blackboard under no assigned or regulated class time.

"It's all self-guided," he said. "You don't have a professor to ask questions to right away, but otherwise it's not much different from a regular class."

Even though Fontanella identifies as a Christian, he says he's fascinated by world religions and attempts to keep an open mind when conversing with his religiously diverse classmates.

"I like reading about it, and discussing it. It's intellectually stimulating," he said. "If you're easily offended, this is not the class for you."

The course is part of a three-fold criminal justice series led by Keith Akins, assistant professor of criminal justice at UHV. Akins, a self-professed atheist, received his Ph.D. in anthropology and religious studies from The University of Florida.

During his tenure, he's spent years developing and examining theories on why and how violent acts stem from religious beliefs.

Critically examining the "why" of religious violence, Akins said there's a falsehood attached to terroristic stereotypes.

"It's not economics, or oil, or education that drives the violence. The idea that terrorists are these poor people, that just isn't true, the data doesn't support that," Akins said. "They're usually the brightest and the wealthiest."

In his professional pursuits, Akins has examined domestic fundamentalist groups affiliated with the Christian Identity Movement, and the Christian-identifying Aryan Nation, responsible for abortion clinic bombings and other similar acts of violence.

He's particularly interested in terrorism derived from the Middle East, and hopes to visit Israel in the next two years to observe first-hand how societies function amid a daily threat of violence and destruction.

"When I first started studying religion, it was a quiet area of observation that no one else was working on," Akins said. "But since 9/11, it's become a much more in-demand area of study."

And it appears Akins and his students aren't alone in their pursuit of religious enlightenment.

In 2007, The American Academy of Religion reported about 47,000 students in universities nationwide were enrolled in religious studies majors, a 22 percent jump from the previous decade.

"I'm not surprised to hear there's a rise in religious studies. Most people are curious in general and when times get tough, people want to fall back on something. Maybe that's religion for some people," fellow UHV graduate student Martin Cano said.

Cano, 45, is taking the UHV course from Austin, where he works as a certified public accountant for a Texas law enforcement agency. He's pursuing a masters degree in interdisciplinary studies with concentrations in history and religious studies. In the past few years, Cano has become enveloped in his religious studies courses, and is now considering teaching religion after he becomes eligible for retirement.

"I had no intention of picking religion as a second concentration. But it's not theology, it's religion, and it tucks in very well with history," Cano, an agnostic, said. "And we get to examine things like 'What is God?' And what's so fascinating is learning about how people are trying to figure it out."

But whether or not someone can figure out God, or make sense of any violence attached to a religion, Fontanella, Akins and Cano continue to encourage people to thoughtfully examine religions from around the globe because it can impact their ability to relate to the world.

"I want people to explore religion as long as they can, and keep an open mind," Fontanella said. "I want to be able to interact with people of all cultures, and these courses help me appreciate all religions and decide for myself what is true."

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