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FYS sponsors first convocation

Amanda Michaels | Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Dean Eileen Kolman and the rest of the First Year of Studies Department saw months of hard work come to fruition Tuesday night as its first-annual academic convocation titled “The United States and the Middle East: Do We Face a ‘Clash of Civilizations’?” took center stage at the Joyce Center.

“[This convocation is] designed to provide insight into the way scholars tackle thorny problems,” Kolman said. Roughly 1,000 students attended the convocation, although students left in large groups after each panel presentation.

Moderator Scott Appleby, a history professor and the director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, added that students will learn how a sound argument is constructed, and that careful attention should be paid not only to what the speakers say, but how they say it.

These speakers, who were members of both the faculty and the student body, presided over three panel discussions dealing with the summer readings assigned to freshmen, including “The Heart of Islam” by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “The Clash of Civilizations” by Samuel Huntington and a set of Muslim-Christian dialogues from various sources. Each presenter was given seven minutes to argue their case, and each individual panel was followed by 10 minutes of questions from designated students.

The first panel, entitled “What is ‘The Heart of Islam'” was made up of theology professor Gabriel Reynolds, anthropology professor Cynthia Mahmood, and freshman Sarah Wheaton. These three discussed the views of Nasr in “The Heart of Islam,” with Reynolds and Wheaton citing ignored counterarguments and internal contradictions as serious flaws in its argument, and Mahmood seeing the work as descriptive, explanative, and interpretive of a religion from within important to the understanding of culture.

“Do We Face a ‘Clash of Civilizations?'” a topic tentatively breeched in the first panel, was further explored in the second. All three speakers found Huntington’s thesis that the source of most major conflicts today can be traced to fault lines between civilizations far too vague and limited in application.

“[Huntington’s theory is] over-simplistic, and in some cases, just wrong,” said Kathleen Collins, professor of Political Science.

Senior Terence Fitzgibbons used his experience studying abroad in Cairo to debunk the thesis, while political science professor Michael Francis attributed international conflicts to power politics, not clashes between civilizations.

The third and final group expounded upon the need for inter- and intra-civilizational dialogue to move toward soothing the world’s conflicts, and was appropriately entitled “The Gift of Dialogue”. This two-member panel was made up of Middle East Studies and theology professor Joseph Amar and theology professor Paul Franks.

Amar argued that the clash theory overlooks commonality and that dialogue between conflicting groups creates trust, respect, and foundation for coexistence. Franks, drawing upon his own Jewish devotion, said that recent Jewish-Christian dialogue has fostered a veritable revolution of feeling between the two groups.

“Interfaith dialogue is between individuals…and individuals can transform communities,” he said.

Appleby summarized the evening by explaining how each speaker’s argument provided a lesson for the scholarly reading of text, including using empirical, historical, and experiential tests to examine a case.

“[This convocation is] intended as a milestone along the road of [first years’] development as students and scholars,” Kolman said, adding that she hopes that the level of discussion in the classrooms and residence halls would continue.