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>  News Releases >   2006 >   January

Dartmouth conference honors leading Arab intellectual, Sadik al-Azm

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 01/18/06 • Contact Genevieve Haas (603) 646-3661

From January 26-29, Dartmouth College will host a conference to honor Sadik al-Azm, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Damascus, and explore the topics on which he has emerged as a leading intellectual influence: Orientalism and fundamentalism. Al-Azm, whose intellectual battles on behalf of progressivism, historicism and modernity have elevated him to folk-hero status in the Arab world, is currently a visiting professor at Princeton University. Dartmouth Professor of Jewish Studies Susannah Heschel, who organized the conference using a grant from the Ford Foundation, said she hopes that the event will serve to highlight the important issues facing Jewish and Middle Eastern studies and let al-Azm's "brilliant, learned, courageous voice be heard in our world."

The conference, titled, "Orientalism and Fundamentalism in Jewish and Islamic Critique: A Conference Honoring Sadik al-Azm at Dartmouth College,"  is open to the public and features presenters from both Jewish and Middle Eastern studies programs. Al-Azm will give one keynote address on Friday, January 27 at 2 p.m. in 105 Dartmouth and Abraham Udovitch, professor of Jewish studies at Princeton University will offer the other keynote address on Thursday, January 26 at 8 p.m. in Hayward Lounge.

Al-Azm is highly regarded for his scholarship on the Islamic world and its relationship to the West. A champion of intellectual freedom, al-Azm was jailed and unsuccessfully prosecuted by the Lebanese government after publishing  "Critique of Religious Thought" in 1969. Ultimately, his trial paved the way for greater freedom of expression in Lebanon. Al-Azm has also drawn fire from conservative Muslim clerics for his defense of author Salmon Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses.

In the academic world, al-Azm rose to prominence when he produced a controversial and iconoclastic critique of Edward Said's influential 1978 work, Orientalism,  a book which argued that the West's study and understanding of the East was based on prejudice and false assumption and amounted to a form of subjugation. Al-Azm's explained that his article "Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse" argued that, "scholars - especially in the Arab world - should beware of the possibility of doing Orientalism but in a reverse way. All the ills of Orientalism, which is a Western school, would be repeated if we approach it in the same way." His critique of Said, a close friend, led to their permanent estrangement.

Al-Azm's work also addresses religious fundamentalism. He takes the view, unpopular in much of the Arab world, that fundamentalism can be applied to Muslims as well as Christians. "My interests leaned toward Islamic fundamentalism," said al-Azm, "and in trying to understand it and analyze it critically from a perspective that is somewhat different from the standard point of view that is the Euro-American approach." His rejection of religious extremism and fundamentalism has made him hugely popular with reform-minded Arabs and Muslims, said Heschel, who noted that he received the 2004 Erasmus Prize, a Dutch award for contribution to European society. He was also awarded the 2004 Leopold Lucas Prize and in 2005 he received an honorary degree from Hamburg University.

The Dickey Center for International Understanding is co-hosting the conference's reception and al-Azm's talk on January 27 as part of Dartmouth's year-long interdisciplinary programming imitative to focus on issues of religion and politics known as the Dartmouth Centers Forum. Dickey Center Director Kenneth Yalowitz said, "The Dickey Center, along with the seven other members of the Dartmouth Centers Forum is pleased to host this reception in honor of Professor al-Azm. His work on the subject of Western discourse on Islamic fundamentalism is very timely and important and  fits very well into the program of the Dartmouth Centers Forum this year which focuses on the subject of religion and politics."

Dartmouth has television (satellite uplink) and radio (ISDN) studios available for domestic and international live and taped interviews. For more information, call 603-646-3661 or see our Radio, Television capability webpage.

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