In its Sept. 17 issue, Newsweek magazine published a cover story on anti-American protests in the Middle East with the headline "Muslim Rage." Awn, the dean of the School of General Studies and a scholar on the Islamic world, used that controversial headline Wednesday night as a jumping-off point for a discussion of the recent turmoil in the Middle East.
In a packed Hamilton lecture hall, Awn argued that religion shouldn't be used to define conflicts in the region.
"The whole notion of Muslim rage, I found it really hysterical," Awn said, asking why the sometimes violent anti-American outbreaks were not referred to as "Syrian rage" or "Libyan rage" instead.
"When you choose the word, you're creating the context."
Awn acknowledged that extreme religious factions are responsible for violence in parts of the Middle East, but he stressed that these factions can't be used to make generalizations about Muslims. Instead, he attributed ongoing problems in the Middle East to the search for national identity and autonomy after the Arab Spring forced out totalitarian regimes.
"It may be a pipe dream, but it is still clearly a cultural aspiration," he said.
Awn also touched on the antagonism between some Middle Eastern countries and the United States, saying that a "lack of cultural respect" on the part of the United States was partially to blame for the protests.
"It's not nice having invaders," he joked, referring to U.S. military involvement in Iraq, Libya, and other parts of the region. Ultimately, he stressed, each country needs to define its own identity independently.
Awn also made the case that the Arab Spring should be viewed in a cultural context rather than a religious one. He compared Islam to other religions, including Christianity and Judaism, and said that it creates a cultural community rather than a defining moral code.
"They interpret their Islam any way they want to. But that doesn't mean they don't identify as Muslim," he said.
Students who attended the event said they appreciated Awn's perspective on the protests, most notably the religious side of his discussion.
"Because we have exposure to it only from the news, we only really see the political side," Arpi Youssoufian, BC '16, said.
The event was sponsored by the Columbia International Relations Council and Association. Rich Medina, CC '13 and CIRCA's vice president of academic affairs, said that the group first talked to Awn over the summer about headlining one of their events. The recent protests—including an attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya, that killed diplomat Christopher Stevens—made his lecture all the more timely.
"He gave an issue that's definitely more complex the full context," Medina said.
Scott Sanders, GS '15, who has followed the uprisings in Muslim countries intently and is taking a class on Middle Eastern history, said he can understand why so many students are interested in the political shifts of these countries.
"There's a tremendous sense of impending change," he said. "That's really exciting to young Columbians."
Awn, however, said that this change would take time, as the citizens of these countries continue to attempt to find their identities.
"This is a very long process, and the jury is still out on how it will end," he said.