Islamism for Beginners

During the spring semester, a reading group started by political science professor Harvey Glickman and sponsored by the Hurford Humanities Center looked at the diversity of thought in the Muslim world.

Fresh from a recent trip to Morocco, Emeritus Professor of Psychology Doug Davis had first-hand information to share with the Islamism for Beginners reading group gathered in the Hurford Humanities Center seminar room in Stokes.

Davis—who has long studied the Middle East and Arab culture—explained that most Moroccans now speak colloquial Arabic (called Darija), but much of the news is broadcast in modern standard Arabic. He also revealed that a full pilgrimage to Mecca forbids participants from lying or drinking; that Muslim children are now using the Internet to answer questions about religion’s role in their modern lives; and that, by and large, Muslims acknowledge one God, a God of mercy and compassion.

“We’ve come a long way from a simplistic view since 9/11,” remarked Emeritus Professor of Political Science Harvey Glickman, the reading group’s originator. “Still, most people don’t know anything about the Middle East except for war stories they see on TV.”

Glickman began the spring semester reading group, which was sponsored by the Humanities Center, in hopes of encouraging sensitivity towards and appreciation of an often misunderstood culture. Over the course of eight weekly meetings, Glickman and interested students, faculty and staff read excerpts from the Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought; the book is a primer on the ideas and people that have shaped Islamism—a movement that embraces the belief that Islam should guide social and political life.  The readings led to spirited discussions on gender, law, violence, jihadism, and Islam’s rejection of Western liberalism and morality.

Alisa Strayer ’13 calls her previous understanding of Islamism “limited,” which is why she joined the group. “Just reading the opinions of the Muslim men and women in our book demonstrated how varied the views are in the Islamic world, which helped bring to light the similarities between American and Islamic culture,” she says. She also had a new perspective on the Koran, which, she says, many extremist leaders have used to support their opinions. “I realized that the logical connections between their arguments and the Koran are minimal,” she says.

Glickman—whose research concerns Islamism’s effect on politics in sub-Saharan Africa, a region he’s taught about for nearly 50 years—hopes to resurrect the reading group for a future semester. “Many found the group to be a window on a body of thought they had not been exposed to before,” he says.

-Brenna McBride

With additional reporting by Heather Harden ’11