American University School of Public Affairs Associate Professor Diane Singerman is pioneering a multifaceted, multimedia program to bring diverse perspectives on the Middle East to the public forefront. The main course: a yearlong series of online video dialogues, aka "vlogs" on hot topics related to Islamic traditions and Muslim societies.
"Islam in Focus," funded by the Social Science Research Council's Academy in the Public Sphere program, will have several components. The grant will be used to create a series of online video dialogues on contemporary topics; organize media trainings for academics engaged in Middle Eastern studies; and support Middle East Studies @ AU, a new university-wide initiative targeting scholars and students from all disciplines whose work relates to the Muslim world. Singerman is co-director of the new initiative, along with faculty members Mustafa Aksakal in History/CAS, and Professor Kristin Diwan in Comparative and Regional Studies/SIS.
Singerman's team will collaborate with a website called Bloggingheads.tv (BhTv) to produce 12 vlogs on issues relating to Islamic history, Muslim society, culture and politics. The monthly show will examine a range of controversial issues, such as how the U.S. military prepares its troops to interact with Muslim societies or how Islamic tradition and law has influenced economic development in the Middle East.
Bloggingheads.tv's unique approach is to bring "interesting, ideologically diverse people together to talk about issues in-depth in a way that is engaged rather than polarized," according to Singerman. The experts chosen for each topic will engage in a free-flow, unmoderated dialogue via Webcam, rendering geographic restrictions irrelevant.
Another ten episodes will be produced in response to breaking news in the Middle East and Islamic world. Singerman's team will collaborate with other universities to cultivate a network of academics, policymakers, policy analysts, and journalists who can speak to such new developments as they arise.
"One of the goals is to link diverse academic voices to policymakers, journalists and the academic community. A lot goes on in Washington but the dialogue is often "within the box" and between people who already know each other or each other's work," said Singerman.
Three BhTV dialogues per week are excerpted in the Opinion section of The New York Times website. Faculty will also be encouraged to post their vlogs on their own websites, helping not only to raise the profile of their work but also to engage with academics and other interested parties outside their discipline. To that end, a media skills training will "teach us eggheads to speak in ways that are more accessible to the public and bring our analysis to bear on critical issues out there," said Singerman.
A portion of the grant will also be used to support a series of seminars and events via the new Middle East Studies initiative at American University (MES@AU). "There are a lot of programs that touch on Middle Eastern studies at AU, but we need to build stronger bridges across schools," said Singerman. "MES @ AU tries to recognize the intellectual synergies on the issues across campus and build upon them."
The project will get underway this June, and to Singerman's thinking, it's long overdue.
"We need better ideas, new approaches and more nuanced ways of relating to the Muslim world and to thinking about political issues that are also influenced by religion, diverse political constituencies, and culture. Hopefully in some small way this program might help achieve that," concluded Singerman.