Brian Didier, Dartmouth Adjunct Professor of Anthropology and a Fulbright scholar, recently returned to Hanover from the small South Asian country of the Maldives. He was there to study the nation's coastal Islamic communities and was one of the first two academics ever welcomed to that country in the history of the Fulbright program. However, he came very close to not going at all; during the application review process, his application was abruptly rejected by the Maldivian government, despite a positive reception by U.S. Fulbright officials. When an acquaintance offered to try and find out why it was rejected through her personal relationship with the Maldivian president, Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom, Didier thought it couldn't hurt to try. He was shocked to learn within weeks that his Fulbright application had been personally approved by the Maldivian head of state.
The Maldives, a tiny archipelago off the coast of India that is home to roughly 200,000 people, is rarely on the West's radar. Despite a surge of interest in Islamic countries in recent years, the small, peaceful nation has had little interaction with Western countries, according to Didier. He believes that Gayyoom's interest in his work is part of a larger movement in the Maldives toward democratic reform and intellectual engagement with the West.
Didier's research interest in the Maldives stems from his work in the field of religious conflict and collective violence, particularly in the Muslim world. Through ethnographic research and interviews with Muslim clerics, he is hoping to understand how religious leaders there are using their authority to push for political reform.
While working in the Maldives, Didier came to feel that Islamic communities in coastal South Asia, where Muslims are often a minority, had received short shrift compared to the attention paid to the North Indian and Middle Eastern Muslim communities. He drafted a proposal for an international conference on "Islam along the South Asian Littoral," with his collaborator Edward Simpson, professor of social anthropology at the London School of Economics. After his Fulbright application experience, Didier elected to submit the conference proposal directly to President Gayyoom.
"I sent the proposal directly to the president in March," said Didier. "My logic was that if he lent support, all the other government officials would follow suit. The President called me in early September and I met him the following day." Didier's audience with President Gayyoom distinguishes him from most, if not all, other Fulbright scholars. Gary L. Garrison, the Council for International Exchange of Scholars Assistant Director for Asia and the Middle East, said he knew of no other instance in which a current Fulbright scholar had a personal audience with the president of his or her host country. And, said Didier, it was largely due to Gayyoom's personal interest that his conference has gotten off the ground. President Gayyoom asked that Didier work with the powerful clerics of the Maldivian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, whom Didier described as extremely helpful and supportive of the project.
The conference, tentatively slated for December 2006, will last for three days and will focus on the history, culture and religion of the diverse Muslim communities living in the coastal and island regions of South Asia. This includes communities from India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Didier hopes to attract about 30 scholars in the field who have lacked opportunities to compare notes, he said. The first day of the conference will focus on the region's history and the final day will center on a discussion of its modern political landscape. The intervening day of the conference will be less typical of scholarly gatherings; local scholars and religious thinkers will be invited to present their perspectives, providing a cultural exchange for the participants. As the host of the conference, the Maldives will welcome distinguished academics from all over the world, a new role for a small country taking its place on a global stage.
By GENEVIEVE HAAS
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Last Updated: 12/17/08