Crown Center celebrates anniversary with panel
Editor's Note: This article has been updated for the September 22 print edition of The Justice.
On Sept. 8, the Crown Center for Middle East Studies celebrated its 10th anniversary by hosting a panel called, “Untold Stories of the Middle East,” about scholars’ studies and experiences in the region.
The Crown Center, founded in April 2005, is dedicated to studying the Middle East and providing a balanced approach to the various issues and events within that region. The talk focused on the panel’s individual experiences in the region and how their findings impact the future of Middle Eastern politics and culture.
In her opening remarks for the anniversary reception, Interim University President Lisa Lynch expressed her gratitude to founder of the Center and President Emeritus Jehuda Reinharz Ph.D. ’72, the Center’s director Prof. Shai Feldman (POL) and the Crown Family for their support. “The impact to the Crown Center’s work can be witnessed across a wide variety of disciplines, institutions and organizations,” she said. Lynch also spoke about what the Crown Center is known for: abundant scholarship in different Middle Eastern cultures, scholars who study various viewpoints and courses that only Brandeis offers.
Lester Crown, one of the main benefactors of the Crown Center, praised the Center’s scholarship, adding that the “best people” may be found around the center. Crown also spoke highly of Brandeis’s academics in all fields of study.
Reinharz discussed his ideas that led to the creation of the Center. He told the audience that he was determined to have faculty members of different backgrounds, including American, Palestinian, Israeli and Egyptian. Politics and religious belief have never been — and will never be — obstacles for employment at the Center, he said.
He also noted that the Center’s achievements mark its importance as an academic institution, stating that the Center is responsible for 7 Ph.D. degrees, over 100 public events and 69 courses over the campus. Reinharz ended his speech by saying that “we [the Center] are not pro or against anything. We are not here to take a side. … Anyone can raise any question [at the Center] if they want, as long as they use evidence-based reasoning.”
Prof. Naghmeh Sohrabi (HIST), the Charles Goodman Chair in Middle East History, talked about the relationship between individuals’ political status and their involvement in democracy in Iran.
Sohrabi spoke about whether getting involved in political events depends on “whom you are.” She argued that a person must be in a power system before he wants to play a crucial role in debate in Iranian forums. Nevertheless, she said, “it is not necessary to follow [the] formal network in power.”
To demonstrate her point about those in the established power system going against the status quo, Sohrabi told the story of former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s daughter, Faezeh Hashemi, who was imprisoned in 2012 for publicly speaking out about Iran’s ruling system. However, Sohrabi also noted that “not every child from powerful families is [a] reformist,” touching on intermarriage between elite and upper class families. According to Sohrabi, the more conservative side of the Iranian elite is starting to consider democracy seriously and become willing to take actions. She believes that people inside Iran must assure people on the street that democracy will bring real freedom rather than militarism. She also noted that the individuals in power must convince the masses that a democratic revolution would not be like the last revolution, as the 1979 Iran revolution turned the country from an open, liberal state to a conservative nation.
The junior research fellow, David Siddhartha Patel, who is currently completing his book, “Islam, Information and Social Order: The Strategic Role of Religion in Muslim Societies,” discussed the structure of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Patel claimed that government leaders in Washington, D.C. did not change their policy on ISIS, even though the expansion of ISIS is beyond their anticipation. Currently,taking advantage of the ongoing civil war in Syria, ISIS has built up governments and provided public services to ordinary people in ISIS-occupied regions.
He put forward two significant elements of ISIS strategies: extreme military experience and full commitment to the cause. In his opinion, he said, ISIS leaders know “how to fight and how to survive,” and the group has commitment pledged to them from people all over the world. “ISIS works closely with offices, [and] it is willing to work with people. It knows how to adjust itself and govern itself,” Patel said.
Another junior research fellow, Jean-Louis Romanet Perroux, shared his experiences studying civil society and governance in Libya and how democracy in Libya can be improved by ordinary people after its democratic transition in 2011. In particular, Perroux described how women, minorities and younger citizens began engaging in democratic protests after the nation began its transition. Additionally, he noted that his group counted more than 2,000 civil organizations across Libya that provide services from “caring for elders, protecting environment, to matching men and women for marriage.”
Richard Nielson, Neubauer Junior Research Fellow with the Center, talked about terrorist groups in the Middle East becoming more academic and using social media to recruit members and bring themselves up to date.
Nielson noted that being academic is one of the crucial parts of many terrorist groups’ strategies, as they can then interest students by initially attracting them with intellectual discussion and then transitioning to subliminal extremist messages. He also stated that social media is another tool for terrorists to disseminate propaganda, stating that terrorists are modernizing methods to attract new followers.
One audience member asked Sohrabi about freedom of marriage in Iran. She said that young men and women are becoming more independent in their relationships as compared to their parents twenty years ago.
While the previous generation’s partners were decided by both familial arrangements and self-willingness, today’s youth have more freedom, and “they can hang out for their date and hold hands on the street,” which their parents could not do at same age, she said.
The anniversary celebration and panel were sponsored by Crown Center for Middle East Studies.