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Conference: Islam and Encounters with Secularism: Futural Openings?

October 1, 2016 @ 9:00 am - 3:00 pm

The University of Florida Center for Global Islamic Studies

Fall 2016 Conference

Is today’s world secular? Many argue that it is not – religion is as prominent in politics, culture, and socio-economic life as ever. Others still believe that secularism is an achievement of modern times that we cannot simply ignore. Muslims are divided on the issue, and in recent years we have seen the emergence of new ideas and discourses about how to re-think and implement secularism. This inter-disciplinary conference seeks to raise the question “Whereto from here and now?” as a way of imagining and embracing futural perspectives that seek to open up new frontiers for addressing the inescapable encounter of Islam and secularism in today’s and in future realities . In addition to hosting talks that will provide a general overview of the issues at stake, the conference will also provide insights from a variety of contexts, approached from different disciplinary angles.
Carrie Wickham, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, Emory University:
Humanist Islam as a Catalyst of Democratic Transformation: Some Preliminary Reflections on the Tunisian Case.
Ovamir Anjum, Imam Khattab Endowed Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Toledo:
Secularism as a Problem in Islamic Tradition
Anouar Majid, Director of the Center for Global Humanities, University of New England:
Secularism and the Dilemma of Faith
Cecelia Lynch, Professor of Political Science, University of California, Irvine:
A Neo-Weberian Approach to Islam and Secularism Among Muslim Humanitarians.
Badredine Arfi, Professor of Political Science, University of Florida
Rethinking Political Legitimacy at the Scale of Global Post-Secularization
Tamir Sorek, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Florida.
Muslim and Jewish secularisms in the Palestinian Communist Party
Bruce Lawrence, Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Humanities Professor Emeritus of Religion, Duke University
The conference is co-sponsored by the UF Office of Research, the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere with support from the Yulee Fund, the Raymond and Miriam Ehrlich Chair in the Department of the Political Science, the Department of Political Science, and the Center for European Studies.



Abstracts and Bios

Dr. Carrie R. Wickham

Abstract: The greatest ethical challenge facing all human societies is to uphold the basic dignity of every human being and – to the extent that it has ever been realized in practice – their greatest achievement. Under what conditions are individuals able to exercise their human rights and, by recognizing the rights of others, live peacefully together? Changes at the level of government and laws, however vital, do not suffice; also needed are changes at the level of society and culture that generate new forms of human consciousness and facilitate their translation into new forms of social practice and behavior. How do humanist values and sensibilities originate and gain wider social traction? A review of world history suggests that a humanist ethics has emerged at different junctures of place and time, where it has been expressed through different local idioms. Among the sources of humanist belief and practice are the spiritual and philosophical traditions of the Arab-Islamic turath (civilizational heritage). Of particular importance is the “inner” or esoteric interpretation of Islam. Advanced by Muslim scholars and Sufi masters and associated with certain forms of popular religious belief and practice, this vein of interpretation emphasizes the essential unity and equality of all human beings and their collective responsibility as stewards of Creation. By dismissing religion as backward and framing it as an impediment to human progress, secular elites in the Arab world have marginalized a vital source of the values that are needed to sustain democratization and development in the region today. Yet paradoxically, the rise of ISIS has prompted a belated appreciation by secular elites of the importance of the humanist tradition in Islam and encouraged new efforts to revive its message and expand its influence. Dr. Wickham will develop such arguments with a focus on humanist Islam as a potential catalyst of democratic change in Tunisia.

Biography: Dr. Carrie R. Wickham is Professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies, Emory University. She received her AB from Harvard and her PhD from Princeton. From 1994-2016, she was a member of Emory’s Political Science Department. Her scholarship focuses on the dynamics of social movements and contentious politics in authoritarian settings, with a regional focus on the Middle East and North Africa. She is the author of Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism and Political Change in Egypt (Columbia University Press, 2002), and The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement (Princeton University Press, 2014). Wickham has presented her research at numerous universities and research institutes in North America, Europe and the Middle East, as well as to members of the U.S. State Department, the National Intelligence Council, the National Security Council, and the intelligence community. Her current research is positioned at the juncture of the social sciences and the humanities. In a new book project, she is exploring how humanist values and sensibilities gain social traction in different historical and geographic settings. The new project will include research on humanist elements of the Arab-Islamic turath (civilizational heritage), the liberal arts and civic engagement as catalysts of democratic change in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt.


Dr. Cecelia Lynch

Abstract: The conventional wisdom about “religion,” perhaps particularly Islam, is that it requires adherence to fixed dogmatic principles and modes of action. The neo-Weberian approach to religion that Dr. Lynch articulates, however, emphasizes the fluidity and necessity of interpretation in religious commitments. Dr. Lynch’s lecture addresses the different ways Muslim NGO actors address humanitarian concerns, including whether and how they claim Islamic, interfaith, “secular,” and/or neoliberal development principles in their work. Dr. Lynch argues that Muslim NGO actors respond in differing ways to globalized discourses of developmentalism and war on terror, depending in part on how localized contextual factors intersect with these globalized discourses. Dr. Lynch uses material from interviews with Muslim NGO actors in Senegal, Cameroon, Kenya, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories in making her argument.

Biography: Dr. Cecelia Lynch is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies, University of California, Irvine. Dr. Lynch is an expert on international relations, religion and ethics, social movements and civil society and has researched and published extensively on topics related to peace, security, international organization, globalization, humanitarianism, and religion. Dr. Lynch won the 1999 Furniss Award, which is given by Mershon Center for International Security to an author whose first book makes an exceptional contribution to the study of national and international security, and was co-winner of 1998-99 Myrna Bernath Award from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, both for Beyond Appeasement: Interpreting Interwar Peace Movements in World Politics (Cornell University Press). Her other books include Law and Moral Action in World Politics (co-edited with Michael Loriaux, University of Minnesota Press, 2000), and Strategies for Research in Constructivist International Relations (with Audie Klotz, M.E. Sharpe, 2007). Dr. Lynch has been awarded fellowships from the Social Science Research Council and MacArthur Foundation. She was a member of the 2006-2008 Working Group on Religion, Secularism, and International Affairs of the Social Science Research Council.


Dr. Anouar Majid

Abstract: One way to read secularism is as an approach that peels off residues of the sacred from the surfaces of everyday life and invites us to deal with our existences unaided by mythologies of creation or self-congratulatory tales of religious supremacy. Secular thought relies on scientific or critical analysis, whereas faith is based on blind trust (and academic apologetics). How is one to make sense of Islam when the only thing we have is word-of-mouth accounts about the birth of Islam and the doings of the Prophet that are unsubstantiated by historical evidence? Is Islam the expression of a particular Arabian culture that was globalized with conquests? Is Islam the Arabian expression of longstanding monotheistic traditions known as Judaism and Christianity? As our world continues to wrestle with the question of Islam in the modern world, Dr. Majid will wonder whether it is possible to have faith in a religion that is not—cannot be—historically true. Can Islam turn into a form of inspiring poetry to its adherents, instead of an absolutist truth dictated from heaven? Rethinking the idea of Islam is, in any case, indispensable to any future of coexistence and human solidarity.

Biography: Dr. Anouar Majid is the founding director of the Center for Global Humanities, founding director of the Tangier Global Forum, and vice president for Global Affairs and Communications at the University of New England. Dr. Majid’s work deals with the place of Islam in the age of globalization and Muslim-Western relations since 1492. Dr. Majid has been interviewed by several media organizations nationally and internationally. Dr. Majid is one of eight global scholars interviewed by the Dutch philosopher Fons Elders in the film Islam Unknown. Dr. Majid’s book Unveiling Traditions: Postcolonial Islam in a Polycentric World (Duke University Press, 2000) was recommended by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) as a book for understanding the context of 9/11. His 2004 book (Stanford University Press) on Freedom and Orthodoxy: Islam and Difference in the Post-Andalusian Age looks at half a millennium of history and cultural contact to trace the evolving roots of discord and extremism. In 2012, Majid published Islam and America: Building a Future Without Prejudice to help general readers understand the cultural and ideological origins of the conflicted relations between the United States and the Muslim world and to suggest challenging and even controversial ways to move toward a more peaceful future. Dr. Majid has lectured and given keynote addresses at major universities and cultural institutions in the United States and around the world.


Dr. Ovamir G. Anjum

Abstract: Does Islamic tradition possess the means and categories to comprehend the phenomenon of secularism? Dr. Anjum’s presentation first addresses the question of how various modern understandings and self-understandings of secularism compare with the modern Islamic attempts to understand secularism. Dr. Anjum further asks how the modern attempts of Muslim thinkers and ulama to understand secularism, indebted as they are to secularism’s evolving own self-understanding, can be advanced for their own sake. Dr. Anjum finally reflects on whether and how recent approaches to secularism that see it as a general condition of modernity (Taylor, Asad, Agrama, etc.) can be squared with the aforementioned Islamic discourses on secularism.

Biography: Dr. Ovamir Anjum is Imam Khattab Endowed Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, University of Toledo. His work focuses on the nexus of theology, ethics, politics and law in classical and medieval Islam, with comparative interest in Western Thought. Dr. Anjum’s interests are united by a common theoretical focus on views of intellect/reason in various domains of Islamic thought, ranging from politics (siyasa), law (fiqh), theology (kalam), falsafa (Islamic philosophy) and spirituality (Sufism, mysticism, and asceticism). He brings this historical studies to bear on issues in contemporary Islamic thought and movements and is currently researching developments in Islamic political thought in the wake of the Arab Uprisings of 2011. While trained as an historian, Dr. Anjum’s work is essentially interdisciplinary, drawing on the fields of classical Islamic studies, political philosophy, and cultural anthropology. He obtained his Ph.D. in Islamic Intellectual history in the Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Masters in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago and Masters in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of Politics, Law and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment (Cambridge University Press, 2012). His current projects include one forthcoming edited volume on Islam after the 2011 Arab Uprisings and a monograph on the foundations of modern Islamic political thought. He is also near-completing a decade-long project to translate a popular Islamic spiritual and theological classic, Madarij al-Salikin (Ranks of Divine Seekers) by Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 1351).


Dr. Tamir Sorek

Abstract: Examining the secular orientation of the Palestinian Communist Party (established in the early 1920s) provides a rare opportunity for a cross-confessional comparison of the way various communities digest extreme secularist ideology. The party has undergone a drastic transformation from being exclusively Jewish in the early 1920s to having an almost equal number of Arabs and Jews by the late 1930s. Since the party had different publications in Hebrew and Arabic, we can compare not only the changing reference to religious tradition over time, but also the differential treatment of religion in each language. Furthermore, the Soviet indoctrination efforts aimed not only to deny a political role for religion, but to eliminate religious tradition as a source of inspiration, and therefore there is much scholarly value in examining the reaction to these far reaching expectations. Indeed, unlike its publications in Hebrew which excluded any reference to the bible nor any pre-modern Jewish text, in Arabic the party did use in its pamphlets references to the Qur’an and to Islamic literature. While the Palestinian Muslim communists are not unique in turning religious texts into a source of cultural inspiration rather that a source of supreme moral authority, the juxtaposition of their stand with the blatant anti-religious orientation of Jewish communists highlights the potential range of creative and flexible options by which Muslim communities can digest even the most demanding secularist ideology.

Biography: Dr. Tamir Sorek is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology and Cminology & Law and University of Florida Research Foundation Professor, University of Florida. Dr. Sorek received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2002. His research interests center on the production of ethnic and national identities, as well as ethno-national conflicts. Dr. Sorek’s study of these processes focuses on socio-historical dynamics, power relations, and the juncture of culture and politics. In his book on Arab soccer in Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2007) Dr. Sorek illustrates how a seemingly innocent arena like sports is in effect a powerful political sphere, which has implications for ethnic, religious, civic and national identification and even political behavior. Dr. Sorek has investigated the collective memory of the Palestinian citizens of Israel in his book Palestinian Commemoration in Israel: Calendars, Monuments, and Martyrs (Stanford University Press, 2015).


Dr. Badredine Arfi

Abstract: The accelerating paces at which populations, including Muslims, of the world are increasingly more implicated with one another, while being confronted with many global challenges and opportunities, put increasingly more pressure on the world at large to question many taken for granted ideas and practices legitimating existing forms of political governance. In an age where democratic forms of governance have overwhelmingly been accepted as best suited to address the problems and challenges of world populations both within and beyond states, the legitimacy gap both domestically and globally of existing democratic procedures, norms and institutions forces us to take into account the conditions of what historically is emerging as a post-Westphalian, post-colonial and post-secular world polity. Dr. Arfi argues that these three conditions require a new form of political legitimacy which, while acknowledging the many historical achievements of existing forms of democracy, must go beyond them to design new ways of achieving political legitimacy that befit the diversity existing in the world today. Dr. Arfi specifically examines how contemporary Muslims drawing on the historicity of Islam as a normative system and as practice can/might address the issue political legitimacy in a post-Westphalian, post-colonial and post-secular world.

Biography: Dr. Badredine Arfi is Professor of Political Science and the University of Florida Research Foundation Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Florida. Dr. Arfi received a Ph.D. in physics in 1988 and a Ph.D. in political science/international relations in 1996 both from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Arfi is the author of International Change and the Stability of Multi-ethnic States (Indiana University Press, 2005), Linguistic Fuzzy Logic Methods in Social Sciences (Springer-Verlag, 2010), and Re-Thinking International Relations Theory via Deconstruction (Routledge, 2012). Dr. Arfi has lectured widely on topics in theories of international relations and security, politics of the Middle East and North Africa, U.S. foreign policy, delivering invited papers at the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, and the University of California at Berkeley. He is currently working on two major research projects: A first one on Islam, Religious Affect, and Democratic Pluralism to-come. He is also finishing a book on A Deleuzian Experiment with Lacan’s Theory of Desire, Fantasy and the ‘Real’ via Deconstruction.


Dr. Bruce Lawrence

Biography: Bruce Lawrence is a Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Humanities Professor Emeritus of Religion, Duke University, and is a longtime veteran in Islamic studies. He earned his doctorate at Yale University in History of Religions, trained to engage West Asia (aka the Middle East) and South Asia, with particular reference to the cultures and languages, the history and religious practices marked as Muslim. He has also concerned himself with the non-Muslim religious traditions of Asia, especially Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. His early books explored the intellectual and social history of Asian Muslims. Shahrastani on the Indian Religions (1976) was followed by Notes from a Distant Flute (1978), The Rose and the Rock (1979) and Ibn Khaldun and Islamic Ideology (1984). Since the mid-1980s, he has been concerned with the interplay between religion and ideology. The test case of fundamentalism became the topic of his award-winning monograph, Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt against the Modern Age (1989/1995). He has also authored/co-authored Shattering the Myth: Islam beyond Violence (1998/2000); Chain of Violence: An Anthology (2007); The Qur’an – A Biography (2007); Muslim Networks from Hajj to Hip Hop (2005); New Faiths/Old Fears (2002); Sufi Martyrs to Love: The Chishti Brotherhood in South Asia and Beyond (2002); Beyond Turk and Hindu: Contesting Islamicate India (2000)





October 1, 2016
9:00 am - 3:00 pm


The Atrium – Ustler Hall
Ustler Hall
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