A recent panel on the Middle East illustrates how a research university can illuminate current events.
Three weeks ago, after the Tunisian protests led to a change of regime in that country and just after Mubarak stepped down in Egypt, it occurred to us in the dean’s office that CLAS ought to call on experts in the college and put together a panel discussion to help the UConn community interpret the events happening across the Arab world.
After a quick discussion in which we agreed that we should arrange something sooner rather than later, we put in a call to Jeremy Pressman, the Alan R. Bennett Honors Professor in Political Science, an expert on Middle East Policy, to see if he could help. It turned out we weren’t the first to call – he was already talking to the Global Citizenship Curriculum Committee about the same idea.
It didn’t take long for all of us to join forces to present Protests in the Arab World: Egypt, Tunisia, and Beyond, which, despite being put together in just a week, drew a very large audience of students, faculty, and staff. Among all the events I’ve been involved with during my time as dean here at UConn, this one best captured the essence of a major research university.
The first thing a university has to offer is expertise, and the panelists in this program brought a deep knowledge of the history and politics of the Arab world. Professor Adria Lawrence, who drove up from Yale, is an expert on collective action and conflict, a specialist in the politics of the Middle East, and has specifically studied how people come to mobilize in favor of ideologies such as ethnicity, nationalism, religion, and democracy. Her blog is a wonderful source of current information and background on Middle East politics. Professor Abdelkader Cheref of Modern and Classical Languages is a native of Algeria and an expert on the language and culture of Francophone North Africa; and Jeremy Pressman is an expert on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Only at a large university like UConn could one, on essentially a moment’s notice, find such a group of experts on a topic of current interest.
Beyond just scholarly expertise, though, this event showed UConn’s global reach. Professor Reda Ammar, head of UConn’s Computer Science Department in the School of Engineering, may not have formal scholarly expertise on the Middle East – his expertise is in high performance computing – but he grew up in Egypt and went to school with both members of Mubarak’s government and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. He spoke with passion about the misery of Mubarak’s reign and what the thawing of Egyptian society would mean to the people of that country.
Professor Cheref was able to speak from personal experience about state oppression in Algeria and his dreams of a freer society there. And looking around the room I was struck by the diversity of the audience, with students, faculty, and staff from around the country and the world. This panel discussion made UConn’s international nature visible.
What I most appreciated about the event, though, was the civil climate that prevailed in the room. We discussed some of the most contentious issues in our societal discourse: the role of the United States as a supporter of dictators or promoter of democracy abroad; the Arab-Israeli conflict; and the role of Islamic extremism, to name just a few. Yet the atmosphere in the room remained calm and measured, with the panelists and the audience participating together in a dignified discussion.
Professor Ammar’s call for a moment of silence in recognition of the individuals who lost their lives in the events we were discussing was moving and appropriate. The contrast between our discussion and the way these topics are frequently treated in the media could not have been more stark, and the contrast showed our university community in the best possible light.
Of course, since this panel, events in the Middle East have continued to develop, and we have moved from the civil disobedience of Tunisia and Egypt to what seems to be chaos and bloodshed in Libya. I’m proud of our little panel discussion here in Storrs, but in the face of these larger events I can only hope that we will find our way to a more peaceful world and, in the words of President Obama quoting Martin Luther King Jr., that the arc of the moral universe will once again bend toward justice for all of the people of the Middle East.
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