Carnegie Scholars Inform Public Dialogue on Egypt, Islam

Between 2005 and 2009, the Carnegie Scholars program focused on one specific area of vital importance: Islam. The goal was to expand the range of scholarship in order to promote knowledge and understanding about Islam as a religion and about the cultures and communities of Muslim societies both in the United States and abroad.  

In the past several weeks many of these Carnegie Scholars have provided an enormous service to both the scholarship on Muslim societies and to the public discourse.  By broadening the picture of Muslim societies, and Egypt in particular, beyond the narrow prism through which they were viewed especially after 9/11, Carnegie Scholars have helped to inform the public conversations about Islam.  

Their work, in media interviews, op-eds, conferences and other fora, is an important element in the Corporation’s comprehensive strategy aimed at increasing public knowledge about the diversity of thought and cultures that both arise from and comprise Islam and Muslim communities.  

More information about the Scholars whose work is described below and others, is available in Carnegie Scholars Program: A Five Year Review of Scholarship on Islam 2005-2009

Elizabeth F. Thompson, Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Virginia

Title: Seeking Justice in the Modern Middle East

Thompson argues that all Middle Eastern social movements since the beginning of the 20th century have drawn upon a common repertoire of Islamic values and text that have been shaped by transnational influences and anti-colonial revolutionary ideologies. Her aim is to wed two methodologies—cultural analysis and social science—to examine how contemporary Islamist groups are heirs to the struggles for justice waged decades earlier by common people who acted against social and political injustice. Framed around the life stories of these people, Thompson’s work focuses on former Ottoman territories that became the nation-states of Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Israel and Egypt as well as Iran, and encompasses the critical roles played by America, Europe and the Soviet Union in supporting or undermining the political movements toward justice. Thompson carefully refrains from equating “democracy” with “justice” to avoid the European dichotomy of the West being “modern” and the East/Islam as “backward.” Instead, she prefers to examine how particular individuals come to formulate notions of justice through feelings of grievance, misfortune or violation. This original interpretation will result in a book for students, specialists and the general public.

Eva Bellin , Associate Professor of Political Science, Hunter College

Title: Arbitrating Identity: High Courts and the Politics of Islamic-Liberal Reconciliation in the Muslim World

A younger scholar, Bellin is regarded as one of the most outstanding scholars in the United States today in the study of the politics of the Middle East, publishing scholarly papers in some of the most competitive peer-reviewed journals in her discipline. She has become a critical participant in the study of politics in Northern Africa and the Middle East. Bellin’s research, which should culminate in a book, aims to explore the roles that high courts play in those states in the Muslim world whose foundational institutions are informed both by their religious identity and their liberal democratic values. She will situate her case studies in Egypt and Pakistan, two countries where the courts play an activist role in reconciling liberal and Islamist traditions. She will investigate the strategies employed by the courts in reconciling these two traditions, as well as explore the institutional, sociological and international factors that help define the justices’ innovative rulings. Bellin aims to elucidate the role that legal elites and institutions may play in forging new paths of cultural reconciliation. With her book, she intends to reach the academic, policymaking and general audiences.

Ellis Goldberg , Professor of Political Science, University of Washington

Title: Sovereignty, Community and Citizenship in Contemporary Arab Political Thought

Goldberg is an expert on Egypt and the relationship between Arab Muslim societies and political movements. His scholarship has been published, in numerous prestigious and influential journals around the world, including the Arab language journal, Abwa. He has continuously engaged communities of intellectuals both in the United States and the Middle East with the aim of mutual understanding. With this fellowship Goldberg will continue to explore the issues of national sovereignty, community and citizenship in the current Arab world by examining how three influential intellectuals, from Egypt (Tariq al-Bishri); Morocco (Muhammad Abid al-Jabari); and Lebanon (Ridwan al-Sayyid) have wrestled with this debate in the context of the modern state. Additionally, the ideas of the sovereign state and the role of citizenship will be discussed in light of their European origin and the impact of these discussions on the modern Arab world. Goldberg will bring to Western audiences as yet untranslated works of these three who advised leaders of opposition movements and have attracted widespread public readership throughout the Arab world.

Yitzhak Nakash , Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, Brandeis University

Title: Governance and Leadership in Modern Islam

Building on his previous work on Shi’ism in the modern Arab world, Nakash, an expert on the modern history of the Iraqi Shi’ites, will examine the greater success of Shi’i clerics in providing religious and sociopolitical leadership to Muslims in Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia since the rise of the modern state in the 20th century. By comparing works of Muslim clerics on state and government in Islam, Nakash will discuss Muslim politics at a time when shifts in geopolitics are challenging clerics’ leadership. His scholarship will explore how Shi’i clerics are better positioned today than their Sunni counterparts to provide leadership to followers, inspire religious and sociopolitical reform in the Arab world, and combat the radicalism of militant Islamists. Nakash’s work will result in a book that illuminates the diverse nature of Muslim politics, the complexity of political Islam, and the capacity of Shi’i and Sunni clerics to act as a force for moderation and reduce tension between Islam and the West.

Saba Mahmood , Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley

Title: Defining the Secular in the Modern Middle East

Mahmood’s research is a comparative study of how secularism has been promoted and contested in two Muslim majority societies, Lebanon and Egypt, in the post-colonial period. In both these contexts, secularism has increasingly come to be seen as a prophylaxis against the ascendance of religious strife and political struggle. Despite this widely held consensus, it is unclear what secularism means within these two national contexts, both conceptually and practically, given their distinct demographic, political, and religious profiles. Mahmood’s historical and ethnographic study will analyze: (a) how secularism has come to be understood differentially in light of the state’s regulation of religious life in these two societies; and (b) how Muslim religious scholars and ordinary believers have come to both accommodate and challenge various ethical and political dimensions of the secularization process. Her work will result in a series of articles and a book that aim to provide a nuanced and in-depth analysis of different traditions of Muslim secular politics in the Middle East.