The Workshop on Muslim Societies, Middle East Studies Program, Corcoran Department of History,
Muslim Students’ Association, and Arab Students’ Organization at the University of Virginia Present….
Islam & the West: Paths Beyond Conflict
John O. Voll
Professor of Islamic History & Associate Director,
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding,
March 15 3:30pm
Auditorium of the Harrison Institute & Small Special Collections Library
For more information, email Prof. Elizabeth F. Thompson in History,
The Workshop on Muslim Societies was established in 2004 by more than 35
faculty whose scholarship concerns the Middle East, the Islamic world, and the interactions of Muslims with peoples
of other faiths around the globe. As our country encounters the new global realities of the 21st century, we
enthusiastically support the University’s commitment to understanding the world beyond Virginia’s shores. We
applaud the University’s wide embrace of the study of the world’s peoples, the complexities of their societies,
the beauty of their cultures, and the dilemmas of their politics through interdisciplinary programs and scholarly
In this spirit, the Workshop on Muslim Societies promotes the study of peoples who have drawn the intense interest
of policymakers, the public, and students, but who have been understudied and often marginalized in the academy.
The program encourages interdisciplinary linkages among faculty and students who study Muslim communities in the
Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Africa, as well as in Europe and North America. A transnational and
cross-regional approach is a necessary response to new social and political realities. Movements of Muslims from
Africa to Europe, from South Asia to the Arabian Gulf, as well as to this continent, are changing religious,
cultural and political perceptions of peoples within and outside of the Muslim community. Conversion, too, is
changing the community. In Africa, conversion rates have risen remarkably south of the Sahara, and now 43% of
the continent’s population is Muslim. In the United States, Muslims now outnumber Jews. The mixing of Islamic
practices from many parts of the world in North America has produced social tensions that quietly mirror the more
volatile political conflicts in Europe. Economic trends have also reshaped Muslim communities, especially through
flows of economic resources from oil-rich societies of the Gulf region to societies in Africa, Asia, Europe and
the Americas. Finally, the geographical location of Muslim communities upon fault lines of international conflict,
in southeast Europe, central and south Asia, and in the Middle East, has utterly transformed their politics and
culture since World War II.
Scholarship must capture this flow of people, ideas, and resources
across borders. First, it must return to scripture and historical texts in a new spirit that reflects the new
experiences of Muslims today. Second, it must go beyond regional specialization to understand the causes and
effects of global movements. The Middle East, for example, as a principal site of American political, strategic
and economic interest, cannot be fully understood unless it is studied within the wider world of Islamic societies.
Likewise, scholars of other regions demand more knowledge of Islam elsewhere. Sociologists of modern Europe, for
example, now argue that European politics cannot be understood without considering the immigrant Muslim populations
there. An interdisciplinary approach also responds to intensified student and public interest. Northern Virginia
is host to one of the more important Muslim communities in this country, and it is appropriate that the state’s
top research university promote the study of Islam. Rising student interest in the many aspects of Muslim
society also supports such study: enrollments have ballooned in the University’s courses on Islamic belief,
Islamic art, and Islam in Africa; on women in Islam; on Middle Eastern politics and history; on South Asian
politics and history; and on the many languages spoken by Muslims, especially Arabic. In addition its longstanding
Arabic summer program in Jordan, the University has recently inaugurated a summer study program in Morocco through
the French department.
Teaching in response to new student interest, and to new realities
within the Middle East and broader Islamic world, must be linked to new research. We therefore envision a
two-staged program to promote the diverse and dynamic scholarly community that would inspire interdisciplinary
and transnational courses and research projects.
Consolidation of a Scholarly Community A primary
concern of the Workshop on Muslim Societies is to build a community inspired to explore new ways of thinking
about Muslims and society through comparative, theoretical, and interdisciplinary research. We therefore invite
prominent scholars and community activists from Muslim societies around the world, and showcase new scholarship
from among our own faculty. An active, core community of scholars from history, politics, French, sociology,
religious studies, and anthropology now exists, where there had not been a network before. Most active are:
Elizabeth Thompson and Rich Barnett, history; David Waldner, Bill Quandt, Jeff Legro, and Ruhi Ramazani (emeritus)
politics; Dan Lefkowitz (and until her departure this year) Hanan Sabea, anthropology; Majida Bargach, French;
Krishan Kumar and Katya Makarova, sociology; Bob Hueckstedt and Hanadi al-Samman, AMELC; Farzaneh Milani, SWAG;
Aziz Sachedina, Tim Gianotti, and Cindy Hoehler-Fatton in religious studies.
The Dean’s office has generously funded our lecture series for the past
three years. The series has also created a community of interest among the students and faculty across Grounds.
In 2004-05 we invited: Juan Cole, who spoke on Shi`ite politics in
Iran and Mahmud Mamdani, who spoke on the Cold War roots of terrorist organizations; and Mohammed Kenbib, a
Moroccan historian who spoke on Jewish-Muslim relations in modern Morocco. The highlight of the spring term was
a panel on democracy in the Middle East featuring Saad Eddin Ibrahim of the American University in Cairo, Soli
Ozel of Bilgi University in Istanbul, and Charles Kurzman of UNC-Chapel Hill.
In 2005-06 we invited a series of scholars who had built innovative
transnational and cross-disciplinary programs: Miriam Cooke of Duke, who built the Muslim Networks Consortium;
Asef Bayat, director of the International Institute for the Study of Islam, at Leiden University in the
Netherlands, and Alamgir Serajjudin of the University of Chittigong in Bangladesh. Our final guest in this
series was Miguel Centeno of Princeton University.
In 2006-07 we have returned to a more public profile in our lecture
series. An Egyptian scholar, Abdel-Monem Said Aly, spoke on Islam and Politics in the Middle East; an
Ottoman historian, Ariel Salzmann of Queen’s University, spoke on images of Muslim in 18th-century Carnival
processions in Rome; and John Voll will give a large lecture in March 2007 entitled “Islam and the West:
Paths Beyond Conflict.” We are also inviting a Palestinian poet, Muhammad Taha, a Lebanese feminist writer,
Evelyn Accad, and a Lebanese sociologist of political violence, Samir Khalaf for the remainder of 2007.
Program Building We have revised our agenda for program building
based on the very informative conversations we held last year. Miguel Centeno’s idea of building faculty-student
research teams, which won support from Princeton Alumni, and Miriam Cooke’s suggestion that we begin with a
single idea that motivates us led to a proposal for the dean this year to build an undergraduate research
consortium among interested faculty. We have discussed the possibility of attaching such a consortium to the
new Miller Center program, Governing America in the Global Age, headed by Jeff Legro of Politics and Mel
Leffler of History. This proposal has been put on hold until a new dean is hired.
We see the research collaborative as a stepping stone toward
building a research center and graduate program. These will, of course, require outside funding, which
will become more attainable with new faculty hires. Our conversations with Dean Ayers have already resulted
in the expansion of faculty: a second Islam scholar in the Religious Studies department, Tim Gianotti, and
several language teachers in AMELC, including Hanadi al-Samman, a scholar of Arabic literature. We are now
expanding our coverage of Middle Eastern history with a search this year for a medieval/early modern historian.
We are also encouraged that the University Librarian has hired an Arabic cataloguer, and that the Provost has
allocated special funds for the purchase of materials in Middle Eastern languages. We hope these are steps
toward the hire of a true bibliographer in our field.
Conclusion No other university on the East Coast
can combine the talent and interest of faculty from such a variety of disciplines and regional specializations.
We build upon the unusual spirit of cooperation that already exists at UVA between Islamic studies and the
Jewish studies program. And we build upon our location near to Washington, D.C., enabling us to attract top
scholars and policymakers to Charlottesville and produce graduates uniquely prepared for increasingly global
and comparative career requirements. In short, the Workshop on Muslim Societies will put UVa on the map as
a truly interdisciplinary and policy-relevant center for the understanding of Muslims’ relationship with
peoples of other faiths and this country’s relationship to the Muslim world. It represents a bold step toward
realizing the goals set by the University’s 2020 Commission on International Activities, to make Mr. Jefferson’s
university the global village it was meant to be. For more information about the program, please contact
Elizabeth F. Thompson, Associate Professor of History, University of Virginia at