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Timely U of M conference can help Minnesota explore backdrop to Mideast unrest

The protests that are rattling Arab governments from Tunisia to Egypt, Bahrain to Libya have many mothers, many explanations. To understand them fully, you can’t stop with the modern-day problems of corrupt dictatorships and frustrated, under-employed youth.

A good share of the rage erupting now is rooted in a profound loss of Arab dignity and pride. All educated Arab children know that their region once led the world in science, medicine, literature and so many other academic and artistic achievements.

Now, they are seen by the West – appropriately or not – as lagging in research intensity and investments in science. And many of their achievements in literature and the arts are not internationally respected.

Prof. William Beeman
Prof. William Beeman

“We are just now seeing that the seeds for this uprising were sown way back when,” said Prof. William Beeman, chair of the University of Minnesota’s Anthropology Department. “And it is not surprising that you now see it popping up everywhere.”


‘Shared Cultural Spaces’
Beeman and other U of M scholars have organized a timely conference that can help Minnesota explore this backdrop to the Middle East’s unrest.

Shared Cultural Spaces,” is presented by the university's religious studies program with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The public is welcome for several sessions beginning today on the West Bank of the Minneapolis campus, where experts in relevant fields will take a fresh look at humanities and sciences in Islamic civilization and reveal the connections between the old and the new as well as between the Islamic and western worlds.

Eddie Bruno Oroyan in "Journey."
Photo by Damon Lynch
Eddie Bruno Oroyan in "Journey."

At the same time, the university is presenting the world premiere of "Journey," a stage adaptation of one of the spiritual and scientific masterpieces of the medieval Islamic world: Ibn Tufayl's "Hayy ibn Yaqzan." Performances begin tonight at the Rarig Center and continue through select dates in March at the Children's Theater Company.

Pillars of the intellectual world
While the conference material is fascinating and relevant to these times, much of it would be old hat to Muslim students. Even many Minnesota youngsters – for example, those who attend the Al-Amal School in Fridley – are well schooled in the story of what happened after the Roman Empire collapsed in the Fifth Century and Europe plunged into the Dark Ages.

Art, scholarly learning and scientific inquiry began to flourish in modern-day Iraq, Egypt and Iran. So respected was universal learning that Muslim caliphs paid for the preservation of Greek texts. And they supported scholars who translated the work that otherwise would have been lost to Europe.

Further, these scholars forged ahead with achievements that stood as pillars of the intellectual world for more than 1,000 years.

Indeed, many scholars and artists of the time still are considered to be giants in their fields: Muhammad Ibn Mūsā Al-Khawārizmī is credited with founding algebra. Ibn Sina's medical texts have been honored for centuries as the most authoritative works in human healing. Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, the great 13th Century Persian mystic poet, remains popular today inside and outside literature classrooms.

The list goes on and on.

What happened?  
Somehow, though, that prominence faded over the centuries.  How and why the Arab and Muslim countries declined as intellectual leaders — including if that actually happened or whether it is a mistaken perception in the West — are subjects for intense debate.

Certainly, we can point to prominent exceptions. Take Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988.

When it comes to science, some critics say that corrupt Arab leaders lined their own pockets and paid off vast patronage systems rather than investing their countries' resources in research and technology. Many of us know brilliant but frustrated Muslim scientists who left their homelands to pursue careers in the West.  

Beeman is among scholars who argue that there are many more Maguib Mahfouzes in Muslim countries. They just haven't been recognized by the West.

Sudden eclipse
Beeman also said, though, that the Industrial Revolution did eclipse advances in the Middle East.

In less than a century, European nations surpassed their Muslim neighbors with superior technologies in military equipment, manufacturing systems, transportation, etc. The Europeans also organized themselves in nation-state systems that were utterly foreign to the orientation of the Muslim world, where it had been possible to travel from northern Africa to China without encountering the obstacles of customs, tariffs and strict national borders.

"It was very sudden," Beeman said.

And it set the stage for what happened as the colonial era ended in the Middle East.  

Strapped for money to modernize their own states, Middle Eastern leaders forged partnerships with Europeans. Eventually the European nations and later the Americans were propping up dictators who couldn't have stood on their own.

"This was what set up the protests for today," Beeman said. "You have potentates, in league with external economic and political powers, who ruled in dictatorial fashion over their populations."

What the protesters have made abundantly clear is that these propped-up dictators have outlived their time. The protestors are demanding a chance to stand on their own and reclaim the dignity and cultural respect that is their heritage.

Information on U of M conference
The U of M conference is to highlight that heritage, exploring Islamic culture in its history and also its modern-day facets on topics including architecture, the arts and aesthetics, science and theater.

Most of the lectures and other events are free and open to the public. A schedule and more information is available here. The presentations of "Journey"  are free at the Rarig Center, but there is a charge of $10 to $20 after it moves to the Children's Theater in March. For both venues, you'll need to make reservations.

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