I am happy to report that the inaugural conference for the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (AMESA) on April 25-26, 2008 went extremely well. The title of the conference was "Evolution of Islamic Politics, Philosophy and Culture in the Middle East and Africa: From Traditional Limits to Modern Extremes." In six months' time, ASMEA has grown to about 500 scholars from 40 countries representing 230 colleges and universities from 35 academic disciplines. Nearly 250 people attended the first conference.
Six panels and two roundtables covered such subjects as Islamic philosophy, religious obligation, current case studies in the Middle East and Africa, and more. The chair of the Academic Council of ASMEA, Bernard Lewis, gave the keynote speech on the subject of "Studying the Other: Different Ways of Looking at the Middle East and Africa." In his speech, Lewis demonstrated that no civilization in history has made the study of "the Other" for its own sake important, except for Western civilization (for which the West is nevertheless disparaged in many a Middle Eastern studies program). Click here to watch Lewis' speech. Media reports on the conference can be found here and here.
I invite you to consider joining ASMEA to help us build a strong academic society dedicated to defending free inquiry into the important regions of the Middle East and Africa.
2 Responses to "ASMEA's debut"
I joined ASMEA and participated in its first annual conference. For me, ASMEA provides an alternative to the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), which has tended to take an obscurantist or apologist line toward Islamism and its threat to the West, as well as a pro-Arab line on the Arab-Israel conflict. The "postcolonial" approach so prevalent in MESA, blaming all problems of the Middle East on the West, was not much in evidence at the ASMEA conference. Many of the difficult issues of contemporary conflict were tackled head-on in ASMEA conference papers. And for once, we academics were not just talking to each other. The conference was enriched by the participation, and by some papers, from members of independent think tanks and agencies, members of various governments, and members of the military. There were definitely more military crew cuts than appear at most academic conferences. This is a constructive development. We want academics to be more realistic, and we want agencies, governments, and the military to be better informed. ASMEA has found a fruitful niche, and I look forward to future conferences.
Philip Carl Salzman is a member of MESH.
As a person who had (more or less) vowed never to bother with most Middle Eastern conferences—I have been to too many farces on both the university and governmental level—ASMEA's recent inaugural conference was a breath of fresh air.
Why? What makes it different? Two main reasons come to mind:
First, the atmosphere of "you're either with us or against us"—i.e., you're either an apologist for radical Islam, who believes that Israel is the source of all woes, who filters all data through a secularist/materialistic epistemology, or otherwise you're a hate-mongering, "Islamophobic," simpleton—was refreshingly absent.
Which, of course, is the purpose of the organization: a return to objectivity—in all its ugliness.
Second, the presentations revolved around topics that actually mattered and were relevant—again, something of a rarity in this field. Presentations revolved around: Islamic jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) and hermeneutics; sharia law and jihad's role; war and peace in Islam; the problematic practice of takfir; and apocalyptic discourse in Islam. Compare these pressing themes to one of the Center of Contemporary Arab Studies' most recent presentations, "Orientalism and Sexual Rights."
The point here is not so much that "orientalism" and "gender studies" are unimportant aspects when studying the Middle East; far from it. Rather, the point is that there are many extremely important and pressing topics—such as jihad, sharia law, and radical Islam—that the world needs answers to, but that are being virtually ignored by those who are most expected to provide an answer.
In the place of this void, it was inevitable that a more relevant and objective organization studying the Middle East, Africa, and the Islamic world would come into being. More's the pity it did not come sooner.
Raymond Ibrahim is a member of MESH.