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Conference Honors Sadik al-Azm

In a year in which many of Dartmouth's faculty and institutions are engaged in discussions about the intersection of religion and politics, the College will host a conference honoring Sadik al-Azm, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Damascus, exploring areas where he has emerged as a leading intellectual influence: Orientalism and religious 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. Susannah Heschel, Eli Black Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, organized the conference using a grant from the Ford Foundation and says 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."

"My interests leaned towards Islamic fundamentalism and in trying to understand it and analyze it critically from a perspective that is somewhat different from the standard poit of view of the Euro-American approach."

- Sadik al-Azm

The conference, "Orientalism and Fundamentalism in Jewish and Islamic Critique: a Conference Honoring Sadik al-Azm at Dartmouth College," runs from January 26 to 29, is open to the public, and features presenters from both Jewish and Middle Eastern studies programs. Abraham Udovitch, professor of Jewish studies at Princeton, will offer one keynote address on Thursday, January 26, at 8 p.m. in Hayward Lounge and Al-Azm will give another keynote address on Friday, January 27, at 2 p.m. in 105 Dartmouth.

Al-Azm is highly regarded for his scholarship on the Islamic world and its relationship to the West. A champion of intellectual freedom, he was jailed and unsuccessfully prosecuted by the Lebanese government after publishing the article "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 novelist 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 that argued that the West's study and understanding of the East was based on prejudice and false assumptions. Al-Azm explains 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."

Al-Azm's work also addresses religious fundamentalism. "My interests leaned toward Islamic fundamentalism," says 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 of the Euro-American approach." His rejection of religious extremism and fundamentalism has made him popular with reform-minded Arabs and Muslims, says Heschel, who notes 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, received an honorary degree from Hamburg University.

The Dickey Center for International Understanding is cohosting the conference's reception and al-Azm's talk on January 27 as part of Dartmouth's year-long interdisciplinary programming imitative focusing on issues of religion and politics, known as the Dartmouth Centers Forum. Dickey Center Director Kenneth Yalowitz says, "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."


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Last Updated: 12/17/08