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Scholars debate discrimination and tolerance in the Middle East

[photo]
Author Evelyne Accad from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (right) and cultural studies instructor Mahmoud Natout from LAU.

May 7, 2007—

Last week marked the inauguration of an international conference on discrimination and tolerance in the Middle East, featuring renowned Islamic scholar-in-exile Nasr Abu Zeid. The conference aimed to initiate in-depth analyses of practices of discrimination and tolerance among people living in the region, especially by those who live and work here.

Too often and for too long, societies of the Middle East have substituted facts and interpretations provided by the West for their sense of self-knowledge, say conference organizers Ray Mouawad and Vahid Behmardi, both assistant professors in the faculty of Arts and Sciences. And while the reasons for this looking outward are numerous, it’s a situation, they say, that can only “lead to more alienation and violence.”

Abu Zeid, who left Cairo for the Netherlands in 1995 after his conviction as an apostate for his writings on the Koran, agrees. “It’s a scandal,” he says about the persistent lack of a commitment to serious scholarship at Arabic-speaking universities. “Some Arabic countries are endowing chairs for Islamic studies in European countries, but they don’t do it in their own countries.” Especially with regard to the Koran, he says, people “are discouraged from touching on these topics,” and the assumption remains that “everything is set, everything is known.”

Reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of the three-day program, two dozen panelists presented on a wide array of topics, including Lebanese sectarianism and reform, Copt identity under the Ottomans, and the “expendable men” of modern militaries. The papers—and a selection of short documentaries screened Thursday night—were also chosen to reinforce an overarching theme, says Behmardi. “All aspects of discrimination are correlated,” he says. “You can’t have a society that maintains one aspect of discrimination while removing the other ones.”

The proceedings of the conference, planned to be held every two years, will be published by the Orient Institut Beirut.


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