An honest conversation about Benghazi and beyond

TIMOTHY SAMUEL SHAH

“[T]he events of the last two weeks…speak to the need for all of us to honestly address the tensions between the West and the Arab World…” Those words were spoken by President Obama in his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 25, 2012. Indeed, all the events swirling around a crude video insulting the Prophet Muhammad demand an honest conversation about the tensions between the West and the predominantly Muslim cultures of the Arab World — not to mention Muslim cultures beyond the Arab World. A logical forum for such a conversation is Contending Modernities. And the ideal host for such a conversation is Dr. Paola Bernardini, the new Associate Director for Research for Contending Modernities.

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Contending conceptions of democracy

PAOLA BERNARDINI

The recent wave of violent reactions in Africa, Asia and the Middle East to the online video mocking the Prophet Muhammad may be taken as the most recent example of a clash between “contending modernities.” The US-based moviemaker is sometimes taken to represent the values of “Western democracy” and “free speech,” while the protesters in places such as Libya and Pakistan are taken to represent “extremism” and “illiberalism.” Arguably, though, they represent not a clash of “democracy” vs. “extremism” but a clash between rival conceptions of democracy.

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An interfaith encounter with America (Part 3)

MAHAN MIRZA

Believers in a religion such as Islam can scarcely hope to speak for all Muslims, let alone for all humanity. They must accept the authority of a public sphere in which people are free to make their case to their fellow women and men on the basis of culturally normative modes of discourse. This sounds exactly like the manner in which prophets used to operate back in the day. Moses defeated the magicians in pharaoh’s court, and Muhammad outdid the Arab poets on their home turf.

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An interfaith encounter with America (Part 2)

MAHAN MIRZA

In my spiritual quest that led to political Islam, I had one all-important stroke of fortune. Despite my zeal, I did not happen to get recruited by al-Qaeda! Instead, I landed in a group called Tanzeem-e-Islami, a Pakistani-based movement that had a few unique elements going for it, including advocacy of a nonviolent strategy of pursuing justice as well as the “revitalization of faith with an intellectual dimension.” I internalized these elements of Tanzeemi thought by traveling to learn Arabic, remaining true to a strategy of nonviolence, and pursuing the path of higher education.

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A new covenant of virtue

ANGUS RITCHIE

Central to Contending Modernities is the interplay between academic research and resources that can be used at the grassroots. In east London, we are seeing the first fruits of this approach with the publication of “A New Covenant of Virtue.” The booklet contains an essay by British and American writers on the Quranic motivation for Islamic engagement in multi-faith community organising, alongside a series of short case studies by local Muslim leaders on what this work looks like in practice. The booklet was launched last week in east London at a multi-faith “Iftar,” the meal with which Muslims break their Ramadan fast each night.

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An interfaith encounter with America (Part 1)

MAHAN MIRZA

“If Islam is so great and things are so wonderful back home, why did you come here?” As an international student from Pakistan who had grown up in a relatively privileged household, my transition to college life in America had promised to be seamless. And in many ways it was, at least outwardly. So my culture shock was extraordinarily abrupt. In the course of a midnight conversation on religion and politics, a fellow student had jolted me out of my comfort zone with his jarring question.

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Cooperating modernities in Tunisia?

MICHAEL DRIESSEN

In April, Columbia political scientist Alfred Stepan came out with an article in the Journal of Democracy on “Tunisia’s Transition and the Twin Tolerations.” If the article is right, Tunisia’s secularists and Islamists are participating in an encouraging pattern of political cooperation that bodes well for the country’s democratic development. There is good reason to be hopeful about the relevance of an emerging “Tunisian model” of secular-Islamist negotiation, not only for Tunisia’s future but for all those countries affected by the Arab Spring. Yet there is also reason for caution.

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Beneath the healthcare wars: difficult questions about living and dying

SAM ROCHA

Although the ongoing healthcare wars between Democrats and Republicans have been raging for some time now, the recent HHS mandate has ignited a more direct and particular conflict. Whereas the former was and is primarily political, the latter seems to be cultural. Regardless of what we call it, this recent battle in the healthcare wars amplifies a longstanding tension between secular/American and religious/Catholic cultures and worldviews.

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Contending modernities in East London

ANGUS RITCHIE

In its religious intensity and diversity, east London is an exciting testing-ground for “Contending Modernities.” It is an area with a long history of migration, and the religious and cultural diversity it brings, raising the question: How do migrant communities with diverse religious and cultural identities shape a common life? Catholic and Muslim migrants in particular have historically both been treated with some suspicion in the UK. The experience of Catholic and Muslim engagement in broad-based community organizing runs counter to such suspicions. Community organizing harnesses precisely the “problematic” quality of these faiths — above all their loyalty to a truth that transcends the nation-state, and a “critical distance” from the status quo — as a means of working for justice.

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The Islamic call for a free Egypt

MUSTAFA AKYOL

When the Arab Spring began earlier this year, first in Tunis and then in Egypt, many in the West felt sympathetic. But other people saw a risk: What if the Arab Spring midwifed a series of Islamist dictatorships? The deposed dictators of Tunis and Egypt were unmistakably authoritarian, but they were also secular. What if Islamists took advantage of democracy to establish their own dictatorships? What if these “bad guys,” as Donald Rumsfeld reportedly put it in a recent meeting in Washington, emerged triumphant?

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