“Engaging Islam and Muslims: Interdisciplinary Perspectives” Conference

Phillip Naylor, our professor of North African and Middle Eastern history, provides a recap of an interdisciplinary conference recently held at Marquette.

I collaborated with Professors Irfan Omar (Theology), Richard Taylor (Philosophy), and Louise Cainkar (Social and Cultural Sciences) and organized a conference on 19-20 March titled “Engaging Islam and Muslims: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.” It was funded by a Helen Way Klingler College of Arts and Sciences “Multidisciplinary Development Grant.” The conference showcased Marquette students and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) faculty. The grant allowed us to invite the participation of Dr. Aminah Beverly McCloud, Director of the Islamic World Studies Program and Professor of Islamic Studies at DePaul University, and Dr. John P. Entelis, the Chair of the Political Science Department and Director of the Middle East Studies Program at Fordham University. Entelis is also the president of the American Institute for Maghrib Studies (AIMS). Marquette is an institutional member of AIMS and the Middle East Studies Association (MESA).

A preeminent scholar of North Africa, Dr. Entelis delivered the plenary address: “A Comparative Analysis of Political Islam in Contemporary Tunisia, Algeria, an Morocco.” Providing a historical background to the rise of Islamism in the Maghrib (northwest Africa), Dr. Entelis explained that Islamism became an attractive alternative to disenfranchised, marginalized classes/groups. Islamism provided agency. He contended that Islamism and democratization are compatible. The problem, he contends, stems from a lack of experience among MENA countries in democratic process.

Conference presentations included sociological perspectives provided by Dr. McCloud regarding American Muslims and Dr. Cainkar on Muslim American youth matriculating in the Middle East. Senior Erin Waldschmidt and alumna Affnan Muhammad served as discussants for these presentations.

Dr. Enaya Othman, who received her doctorate from our department and now teaches Arabic in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, described her latest project, an examination of women’s clothing and identity. I must note that she is the founder and president of the Arab and Muslim Women’s Research and Resource Institute (AMWRRI) and that she will be organizing a display of women’s clothing at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Sophomores Rawan Atari and Samantha Pryor offered commentaries.

Dr. Taylor’s presentation underscored the importance of appreciating Muslim contributions that influenced Western European philosophy. Dr. Omar referred to inter-religious discussions (namely between Muslims and others) as a “dialogical imperative.”

Dr. David Twetten of the Philosophy Department linked Muslim influences (termed a “historical dependence”) in the formulation of Jesuit education. Christopher Spotts, a doctoral student in Theology, compared inherent social justice in the practice of Sabbath and zakat.

Dr. Lauren Applegate of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures examined the Spanish imagination of the “Moor,” especially during the Rif War of the 1920s. Her department colleague, Dr. Boubakary Diakite, spoke about how griots linked their professions as musicians, poets, and entertainers to Islam as a means of asserting legitimacy.

Dr. Risa Brooks of the Department of Political Science compared the roles played by militaries during the Arab Spring. Senior Jenna Siebold, an outstanding history major, surveyed the political activism of Egyptian women during the early twentieth century. I ended the presentations by examining how the ideas of Malik Bennabi, an Algerian intellectual, could be prescriptive given the current tumult in Islamicate civilization.

The conference concluded with a fabulous dinner at Shahrazad Restaurant on the Eastside. Chef Mohammed prepared an array of culinary dishes that took us on a culinary geographical feast from Morocco to Iran. It was a great way to end the conference. The organizers were pleased that Rev. Philip Rossi, S.J., our interim dean, and Dr. Bill Donaldson, associate dean, could also attend. I was especially grateful that Dr. James Marten, our department chair, also joined us. The History Department was especially supportive of the conference.

“Engaging Islam and Muslims: Multidisciplinary Perspectives” illustrated that we have interested students and a strong core faculty who could offer an interdisciplinary MENA program. That is a project that we intend to pursue.

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