The second Islam in Conversation Week (ICW) kicked off on Monday with a packed audience in PAC 001, marking the start of what organizers, the Muslim Students' Association (MSA), hope will become an annual event. Themed "Islam and the Contemporary World," the program intends to showcase the richness and relevance of modern Islamic faith and culture.
"Our goal is to prove to Wesleyan that it is high time a Middle Eastern Studies Program was started," said Muslim Chaplain of the University Sohaib Sultan in his opening remarks.
Dr. Sherman Jackson of the University of Michigan delivered the week's first lecture, on the topic of "Jihad, Terrorism, and Modern Violence." Wearing a priestly collar and a black jacket, Jackson took to the podium with the ease of a man who is well aware of his ability to electrify and enthrall his audience.
Jackson focused on the Western world's attribution of everything in the Islamic world directly to the Islamic faith, and its corresponding failure to recognize the diversity of cultural, economic, and social causes that also influence what is currently considered the Islamic world��"a theme that would resurface frequently in the subsequent events of the week. Jackson pointed out that Islam would not be considered the sole cause behind any terrorist actions of a Muslim African-American, but that it would of a Muslim Arab.
"Islam explains everything for those people, but not for those in the West," he said.
Jackson also stressed that, while this gap in understanding can be considered a shortcoming on the part of the Western world, the Muslim community is also responsible for its role in the failure to establish understanding and dialogue.
"Muslims in the West must be active and vocal in their condemnation of current violations of hirabah," he insisted, referring to the Sharia law that outlaws any act of publicly directed violence that spreads fear and helplessness.
According to Jackson, hirabah more than covers today's conception of terrorism. He discussed the moderate Muslim unwillingness to publicly decry acts of terrorism and attributed it to the desire to not be seen as ‘Uncle Toms.'
Although attendees received Jackon's lecture well, they were nevertheless less than impressed by the question-and-answer session that followed.
"I felt like he spoke very well, but didn't really directly answer any of the questions that followed," opined Eric Rosenberg '08.
Tuesday's lectures saw Dr. Ingrid Mattson of the Hartford Seminary speak on "Gender, Society, and Change," which some attendees found disorganized and disappointing; and Dr. John Woods of the University of Chicago give a talk on "Imagining and Stereotyping Islam." Woods' presentation grabbed the audience's attention and interest, due in no small part to his use of political cartoons and lurid graphic artwork of Western conceptions of Islam. He compared several of these works to Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda.
In his talk, Woods focused on the contrasting representations of Islamic cultures as oppressive and exotic, and of Islamic women as either overtly sexualized and uncovered or completely covered. He also included interesting trivia: a sample American population, when asked to order ethnic groups according to social status, placed Iranian and Arab people below an imaginary group called the Wisians.
In the discussion that followed the lecture, Woods commented on the existence of similar stereotyping in the Middle East of the Western world, but reasserted the West's responsibilities to change its attitudes towards the Middle East.
"We as a people have more of a direct impact on their everyday lives than they do on ours," he said. "It is clichéd to say so, but power brings responsibility."
Other events in ICW included a screening of a film set in a madrasa (an Islamic school) on Wednesday and the highly anticipated "Dialogue on Faith, Reason, and Revelation" on Thursday, during which Shaykh Yasir Qadhi of Yale and Iman Rumee Ahmed of Brown debated from the extremes of conservative and liberal interpretative schools of Islam.
"These are really big speakers on campus for the week," asserted a happy Maggie Mitchell '08, of the MSA. "I would say they are the Art Spiegelmans of the Islamic world."
The week will close with a concert of Sufi music on Friday in the Daniel Family Commons and Lounge in Usdan, 5:00 p.m.