The University Record, October 1, 2001

Panelists offer insight into Middle East

By Theresa Maddix

Members of the University community packed yet another venue Sept. 25, still struggling to make sense of the events of Sept. 11. The symposium/teach-in brought seven distinguished panelists and moderator Carol Bardenstein, assistant professor of Near Eastern studies, together for “The U.S., the Middle East and Islam: Reflections on the Current Crisis.”

“In the past couple of weeks, we’ve all been overwhelmed by and, at least partially willingly, awash in images, news, words and tapes of what has happened, in an attempt to comprehend that it has actually happened,” Bardenstein said. The symposium’s aim, she said, was “to bring together people with academic expertise about and direct experience of the Middle East and the Arab American and Middle Eastern community in Michigan and elsewhere in the United States.”

“As an expert—a term I have come in recent days to despise,” said panelist Andrew Shryock, assistant professor of anthropology, “I am certain only of the vast gulf that separates the Arabs and Muslims I know from the gruesome acts that hang unjustly around their necks. What special problem or moral challenge do Americans, after Sept. 11, pose for Arabs and Muslims, for ourselves—a category that includes roughly six million Arabs and Muslims living in the United States—and in the world at large?”

Mark Tessler, professor of political science, addressed perceptions and attitudes in the Arab world, especially the question: “How much anti-Americanism is actually out there?” Tessler asserted that there “certainly is some [anti-Americanism] but our conception is vastly exaggerated.” He noted that this sentiment, where present in the Arab world, is usually based on America’s foreign policy toward Israel, toward Iraq and “above all, perpetuation of the status quo.”

Sherman Jackson, associate professor of Near Eastern studies, who introduced himself as “a non-Arab, Muslim-American,” talked about religion-based violence. “We might do well to remind ourselves that the perpetrators of these acts are dead and therefore, they can give no explanation for why they undertook the actions they undertook. Who then makes the attribution and association between these particular actions and Islam? Why are other motives so hard for us to imagine?”

Jackson went on to talk about Jihad, distinguishing between ideas of classical and modern Islam, and stressing that Muslims’ beliefs are widely varied. However, he emphasized, “Terrorism has nothing to do with Jihad. Terrorism is the most severely punished crime in Islam.”

Anton Shammas, professor of Middle East literature, asserted, “Even now it is safe to assume that we are all still groping in the dark in one way or another. Discourse [in the media] doesn’t seem to have risen beyond the original logic of rage which has been with us since the Stone Age and can be encapsulated by the imperative ‘rubble for rubble’ as the right American political answer.”

Shammas suggested that instead of a teach-in focusing on the Middle East and Islam, the University might find more answers in an examination of American foreign policy.

Juan Cole, professor of history, said that Al-Qa’idah, led by Osama bin Laden, is a cult-like group, not unlike other fringe organizations. Cole warned that as a highly technological society, the United States will continue to be vulnerable to the destructive actions of a very small number of people. “We, as a society, have to figure out ways to configure our technological systems for protection,” Cole said.

Other panelists were Ph.D. candidate Najeeb Jan, speaking on “Pakistan, the Taliban and Anti-Americanism,” and Nabeel Abraham of Henry Ford Community College, speaking on “Arab-Americans in Crises: Then and Now.”