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Nuance Characterizes Middle East Forum

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June 9, 2009 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- At the inaugural meeting of Northwestern University’s Middle East Forum early this week, a Northwestern professor of law and history spoke of her research indicating that the label “Islamic state” -- used both by Islamicists and the people who study them -- obscures far more than it assists in understanding law and politics in the Muslim world today.

It is this kind of nuanced discussion that is expected to characterize the newly established Middle East Forum at Northwestern. Kristen Stilt, an associate professor at Northwestern Law School with a joint appointment in history in the Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, on June 2 spoke on “Enshrining Islam in National Constitutions: Genealogy, Mobility and Contestations in Egypt and Malaysia.”

The Middle East Forum is an interdisciplinary group of University faculty members interested in the study of the contemporary Middle East (including North Africa, Turkey and Iran). While its core group will be faculty, it also will seek to engage Northwestern undergraduate and graduate students.

University President Henry S. Bienen told the gathering of 45 scholars at the Forum’s first meeting that the in-house Forum will invite visiting Middle East scholars from universities and institutions in the Chicago area, the country and abroad to participate in its events.

“Rather than creating a new center or program, the Forum is taking advantage of and fully utilizing existing human and administrative resources in its important mission of furthering understanding of the Middle East,” said President Bienen.

A major conference titled “Israel and the Arab World in the 1950s: A Historical Retrospective” will be among the Forum’s first major undertakings. Planned for Spring 2010, the conference will be co-sponsored by the Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies and the Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies.

Visiting Crown Chair in Middle East Studies Elie Rekhess and Buffett Center Director and Hendrik Spruyt, who also is the Norman Dwight Harris Professor of International Relations, will co-chair the Forum. Its members will be drawn from diverse disciplines, including history, political science, sociology, anthropology, economics, law, cultural studies, journalism and communications.

“We will strive to stimulate discussion, analysis and debate on key issues, such as the stability of regimes, elections and democratization; national ethnic and religious conflicts; regional security and cooperation; the role of religion; violence and terrorism; women’s empowerment; and culture and media,” said Rekhess. On sabbatical from his position a Tel-Aviv University, he is one of Israel’s leading experts on that country’s Arab minority.

The Forum will hold workshops and seminars, produce publications, assist Middle East visiting scholars in their research and seek to build bridges with local organizations, such as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. At roundtable discussions, Forum members will present their current work or speak about the themes of their research on or affecting the important Middle East region.

The Forum will operate under the auspices of the Buffett Center and include a five-member advisory board to help oversee its activities.