The Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR) at the American University of Beirut (AUB) hosted its first international conference, 18-21 December 2005. American studies scholars from twelve Middle Eastern and North African countries gathered in Beirut with colleagues from North America and Europe to consider the theme, â??America in the Middle East/The Middle East in America.â? The September 11 attacks and the Iraq War have thrust the people of the Middle East and North America into direct and intense contact. In a sense, CASAR was born of this tension. New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, in October 2001, turned down Prince Alwaleedâ??s $10 million gift to the Twin Towers Fund when the Prince suggested that the U.S. â??should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stand toward the Palestinian cause.â? [i ] The Prince subsequently funded the establishment of CASARâ??and a second center at American University in Cairo--with the goal of â??increasing mutual understanding between the United States and the Arab World, and increasing knowledge of the United States in the Arab World.â? [ii ]
Conference participants sought to explore current tensions through contextualization and questioning. Many examined historical interactions between two places designated â??Americaâ? and the â??Middle East.â? Questioning the status of these two terms, and the entities they purport to describe, was a common point of departure. This conference report is based on scores of conversations--with participants, session chairs, and students--yet it represents only one perspective among many on a complex event.
Perhaps the most salient feature of the conference was lack of agreement. Divergent perspectives occasionally led to heated interactions. Some Iraqis who suffered under Saddamâ??s regime see no justification for the current resistance to U.S. occupation. Certain Iranians who were gassed by Saddamâ??s forces are glad the Bush administration invaded Iraq. Some Lebanese, while recognizing that their fate is hardly an important consideration to U.S. policymakers, are nevertheless thankful that U.S. actions seem to have contributed to the Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon. While recognizing such effects of the invasion of Iraq, the majority of conference attendees--from within the region and beyond--were concerned about the broader dangers of a U.S. hegemony that claims the right to invade any space, imprison any body, while answering to no one in the pursuit of its interests. What kind of world might this lead to? Palestinians at the conference were passionate about their own oppression; many of them would no doubt welcome a power inversion in Israel-Palestine similar to what has occurred in Iraq. In the Middle East, the violence and pain of the conflicts in Iraq and Israel-Palestine are close, and passions are near the surface. Does this proximity to the reality of conflict cloud academic discourse? How do we negotiate the comparative dangers of regional hegemons versus the global hegemony of the United States? Which perspective is selfishly narrow?
American studies scholars in the Middle East face many difficulties: they are distant from North America, they work in relative isolation, funds and basic materials are often scarce. Keeping up with the twists and turns of current debates in the field is not easy. In response to the suggestion that North American and European scholars are closer to the cutting edge, Janice Jaysâ??who has worked as a Fulbright Scholar in Egyptâ??argued â??they are on one edge; scholars here are on another edge.â? Indeed, the multidimensional presence of America in the Middle East suggests the question: how far are Middle Eastern American studies scholars from their object of study? Thinking about America while in direct contact with the tumultuous realities of the Middle East provides a kind of contrapuntal consciousness that might, as Edward Said suggested â??diminish orthodox judgment.â? Although Middle Eastern scholars and those from North America and Europe sometimes had very different perspectives, both groups seemed eager to engage and learn from each other.
A special feature of the Beirut conference was a workshop on â??American Studies in the Middle East.â? The workshop brought together scholars of American studies--and representatives of American studies programs--from the Middle East and North Africa, along with scholars from Europe and North America, to discuss what American studies can be in the Middle Eastern context. The session combined brainstorming, critical analysis, and planning. Participants examined common issues, concerns, and prospects and considered future collaboration within the region and beyond. Again, a remarkable divergence of conditions, experiences and perspectives was evident. Most programs had experienced political or financial pressures of some kind. We discussed what scholars in the Middle East might distinctively contribute to American studies. All agreed that continued collaboration was desirable. We created an email list to help in this regard, and a detailed report on the workshop will soon be circulated to all participants. We discussed the idea of establishing a Middle East American Studies Association, but agreed that it was premature. It was decided to revisit this via our discussion list and at CASARâ??s next international conference, planned for the winter of 2007-2008.
A lively conclusion to the conference was provided by the extended question period following Melani McAlisterâ??s closing address, â??Our God in the World: The Global Visions of American Evangelicals.â? While outlining the foreshortened picture of the Middle East and Islam that many evangelicals in the U.S. hold, she also presented convincing evidence of the diversity and continuing evolution of the evangelical movement. In many ways this was a difficult discussion, butâ??like the conference as a wholeâ??worthwhile. One Arab woman told me: â??I realized I had been demonizing American evangelicals as much as many Americans demonize so-called â??Islamic fundamentalists.â??â? Many conference participants were surprised at the open atmosphere of AUB and Beirut. The city and the university provided a setting where people could openly disagree, raise difficult questions, and engage across lines of difference.
Center for American Studies and Research
[i] â??Giuliani rejects $10 million from Saudi prince,â? CNN, October 12, 2001.
[ii] â??Memorandum of Understanding: The Prince Alwalleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud Center for American Studies and Research,â? 4 June 2003.