In the United States, the words “liberty” and “justice” have been central to discourse about public issues of every sort—both those commonly considered domestic and those considered foreign. The notion that liberty and justice are peculiarly American values is based, in part, on the idea that America represents a complete rupture from the Old World, a place to begin again separate from corruption and limitation. Yet rupture or complete separation—represented by such dichotomies as New World and Old World, domestic and foreign—has always been a fiction that ignored multiple kinds of mixing and hybridity. Today, America is present in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) economically, culturally, politically and militarily; and the MENA is present in America in multiple if asymmetrical ways. In recent years, nonetheless, U.S. leaders--confident that most of the citizens they lead still believe their country is an exception to all others, the “land of the free” that provides “liberty and justice for all”--have attempted to create a “new Middle East” through public diplomacy, sanctions, and regime change. They have used the rhetoric of liberty and justice--expressed as a concern either to protect their own freedom or to spread democracy, human rights, and women’s rights--as a principal justification for their actions. Surveys indicate that many residents of the MENA admire the same ideas of liberty and justice but feel that, in their relationship with the United States, they are being dealt the opposite. Thus, many Middle Eastern religious and political leaders critical of U.S. actions also employ the rhetoric of liberty and justice as a rallying point. At stake in these contexts are exactly what liberty and justice consist in and how they can best be achieved.
In democracies like the United States, rights emerged historically within a frame: there were limits on who was entitled, who was fully human. Although proclaimed in the abstract (“all men are created equal”), rights appeared as part of a process of exclusion that defined who counted as part of the national community. The logic of exceptionalism, even when marshaled to increase liberty and justice, seems to depend on continuing exclusions.
This conference will examine current and past encounters between America and the MENA with a particular focus on the many ways notions of liberty and justice have informed, or might inform, those encounters. The conference call for participation suggested that participants address the following topics:
How have literature, film, music, television, blogs, and other forms of expression and media, explored liberty and justice in the encounters between America and the MENA?
How have political and religious leaders used liberty and justice?
What part did the exclusion of African-Americans and Native Americans play in the emergence of the rights of white Americans? What might we learn from this history about current U.S. discourse on Muslims and Arabs?
How have liberty and justice informed U.S. interactions with Latin America, Asia, and Canada, and how do these compare to current interactions with the MENA?
Have ethnic, religious, and sexual minority groups in the MENA found U.S. rhetoric about liberty and justice useful in their own struggles?
Have immigrants to the United States from the MENA faced a struggle for justice and freedom that has marked their identities, their communities, and their literatures?
How do attempts to apply rights universally--such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Criminal Court—compare to recent rhetoric and actions of U.S. leaders? How has the relationship between justice and international law evolved in the context the unfolding U.S. encounter with the MENA?
How do notions of liberty and justice enter into teaching American studies in the Middle East and teaching Middle East studies in the United States?
How do these values enter discussions of academic freedom, women’s rights, just wars, torture, and prisoners’ rights?
Do these values have an important role in state relations or is that an exclusive realm of interests and power?
Can an empire be just? Can an empire provide liberty? Do notions of justice motivate suicide bombers and others who kill civilians?
How have notions of liberty and justice been interpreted by those who pass back and forth between America and the Middle East (travelers, diplomats, missionaries, journalists, academics, tourists)?
Might potential new political leadership in the U.S., Iran, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, or other countries affect the prospects for, or interpretations of, liberty and justice?
In the relationship between the U.S. and the MENA, how have concepts of economic justice affected discussions about poverty, oil, sanctions, privatization, trade, and development?
Why does U.S. media so often represent Beirut as a dangerous place? Are these representations out of proportion to the statistical reality of danger? How do dangers in the U.S. compare to those in Lebanon? What projects are served by the propagation of fear in either context? Are such representations connected to the rhetorical use of notions of liberty and justice? How do the fears they magnify affect the prospects for actual liberty and justice?
The conference will bring together scholars from North America, the Middle East and other regions. In an attempt to engender new insights and perspectives, the conference will provide considerable time for free interaction. In recent years, several new American studies programs have appeared in the MENA. A working session will explore the dynamics affecting American studies programs in the region, their problems and prospects. Approximately one month after the conference, presenters will have the opportunity to submit their papers for inclusion in a proceedings volume that will be internally refereed.
The Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR) at American University of Beirut was launched in 2003 with a major gift from Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud. It is an independent academic center that seeks to promote better understanding between the people of United States and those of the Arab world through teaching, research and outreach efforts.