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Attendees reflect on intiative’s launch

By Laura McCrystal | Monday, November 22, 2010

NEW YORK — After spending the spring and summer of 2010 in Cairo studying abroad and interning at an Egyptian business, Notre Dame senior Shannon Coyne is writing a senior thesis about gender balance in Egypt.

Given her field of study, Coyne said being in New York City for launch of Notre Dame’s research initiative, “Contending Modernities: Catholic, Muslim, secular,” was a meaningful experience. Her thesis includes her experience and observations living as an independent, western woman in Egypt.

“So it’s a really great opportunity, kind of a capstone for everything I’ve been working on,” Coyne said. “My [thesis] topic is right in line with everything that we’re discussing this weekend.”

Coyne, a political science and Arabic double major with a minor in Peace Studies, was one of two Notre Dame undergraduate students at Thursday and Friday’s opening events for Contending Modernities. An international research initiative, the project explores the relationship between Catholicism, Islam and secularism in a modern society.

Junior Elizabeth Andrews, a double major in Arabic and anthropology, also attended the events. She said she enjoyed learning about the research related to these three topic areas.

“I think it’s a really important topic in that the subject matter is incredibly politically, socially, economically relevant today, and it’s in a field in which research doesn’t regularly present itself,” Andrews said. “So it’s just good for students to see that there are people exploring these topics just because they are so important.”

Andrews also said she appreciated the opportunity to see scholars work together to present their views on Catholicism, Islam and secularism.

“I was really impressed to see so many scholars together collaborating and referencing one another in their own speeches,” she said. “It was also intimidating to be sitting among all of these people who I had read their work in class.”

Notre Dame theology professor Fr. Paul Kollman said the speakers at the events complemented one another by addressing the three topic areas and their relationship to modernity.

“I thought the talks [Thursday] got us off to a good start, each in its own way asking us interesting, comparative questions about each of the three traditions broadly conceived in the title of the project,” Kollman said.

Mahan Mirza, professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Notre Dame, is a member of Contending Modernities’ steering committee. As one of two Muslim faculty members who work in areas relating to Islam at Notre Dame, Mirza said the project interests him on both a personal and professional level.

Contending Modernities and its launch in New York demonstrate a combination of “cutting edge scholarship” and public debate, Mirza said.

“These are all very difficult things to do and I think that very institutions are capable of having such multi-pronged, multi-dimensional conversations,” he said. “Notre Dame is answering that call in a way.”

Coyne said she also found the project’s emphasis on healthy conversation important. Contending Modernities fits her academic interests, but as a member of the Center for Social Concern’s student advisory committee, she works to engage her fellow students in dialogue.

Earlier this semester, Coyne and the student advisory committee held a student conversation about the Islamic Cultural Center near ground zero, which she said was successful.

“The discussion at that event was phenomenal,” she said. “And that really showed me how students at [Notre Dame] are interested in these topics and almost kind of starved for ways to talk about them outside of the classroom. So … [Contending Modernities] is a wonderful opportunity for us to engage with these issues and think about how we can serve to bring these issues back to school with us and work with our peers to talk about these issues.”

While Contending Modernities combines scholarship and public debate on a number of topics, Mirza said its overall meaning involves making the world a better place. Because approximately half of the world’s population is either Muslim or Catholic, he said understanding between these two religious groups is crucial.

“For me, I can boil it down to trying to help us all get along and trying to understand each other,” Mirza said. “We want to have better lives, as the Grand Mufti [of Egypt Ali Gomaa] said [at the event], for our children and our grandchildren. And that’s what I think this project is all about.”