Posted on May 26, 2015

A symposium on “Overcoming Prejudices: Islam and the West, A Tale of Two Conflicting Cultures and Experiences” held on May 18-19 by the Gulf Studies Center (GSC) at Qatar University College of Arts and Sciences (QU-CAS) drew a number of distinguished researchers and international specialists from around the world to share ideas and observations on the current relationship between the two cultures.

The 2-day forum of sessions and workshops was held in collaboration with the Regional Office Gulf Studies of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung,(KAS), a Berlin-based political foundation and think-tank. Participants explored the growing situation of distrust and miscommunication between east and west, the interpretation of the limits to freedom of expression, the increased rise of radicalism throughout the Middle East as well as the motivations behind Europe’s right wing movements, among other issues.

The symposium was part of a series of collaborations carried out by the GSC in cooperation with international research institutes to tackle critical socio-political and economic issues in the region. Attending were CAS members including Dean Dr Eiman Mustafawi, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Dr Hassan Abdel Aziz, GSC Director Dr Abdullah Baabood, and KAS Regional Representative to the Gulf States Dr Gidon Windecker. 

Participants included research coordinator and assistant professor of Gulf politics Dr Luciano Zaccara, associate professor in the Department of Mass Communication Dr Nourredine Miladi, and research professor and coordinator of social science of the Center for Humanities and Social Sciences Dr Daniel Varisco (all QU-CAS); associate professor of history Dr Mohammed Reza Pirbhai (Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar); associate professor of journalism; Dr Ibrahim Abusharif (Northwestern University in Qatar); German journalist, media specialist and strategic advisor Mr Christoph Lanz; non-resident Fellow Dr Amel Boubekeur (German Institute for International and Security Affairs); Director Ms Esra Kücük (Young Islam Conference, Germany); project management assistant Ms Mersiha Hadžiabdić JUMA, Germany); Director for Political Consulting Mr Nico Lange (KAS); professor of political science Dr Abdullah Al Shayji (Kuwait University), assistant professor of world studies Dr Aliakbar Alikani (University of Tehran); and senior researcher Dr François Burgat (CNRS IRENAM, France). 

CAS faculty from GSC and the Center for Humanities and Social Sciences along with students from the Gulf Studies Program and International Affairs Department also participated. Keynote speakers were Hamad bin Khalifa University Dean of Faculty of Islamic Studies Prof. Dr Aisha Yousef Al Mannai, and German social scientist, author and commentator on political, social and religious affairs Dr Necla Kelek. Opening the symposium, Dr Zaccara said that the topic is a very timely and sometimes controversial one that requires a profound academic debate among scholars from all over the world in order to overcome misunderstandings, distrust and prejudices and to bridge the existing gap between Islam and the West.

Dr Windecker noted that fostering dialogue and understanding between Europe and the Gulf is the core of KAS’work, adding: “We’ve come together at the most critical time when voices of extremism on both sides rise high. We’ve come together to show the extremists and their followers that it’s time to end the war. It is time for another alternative which is dialogue and constructive exchange of ideas and listening to each other. Respect, understanding, trust and cooperation are the only ways to defeat terrorism”. Dr Al-Mannai said: “Islam is a religion of peace not of war. Therefore, we should avoid the word ‘conflict’ whenever we talk about Islam-West relations. There might be differences between the two cultures but there is no clash of civilizations. We all should work hard on rebuilding the bridges of communication, respect and dialogue”.

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Dr Kelek said: “Again and again, the question was raised in the debates about the relationship between Islam and Islamism. Depending on interest, the answers were either opposite to each other, equating or that both have nothing to do with each other. It seems as if now the opportunity and the duty is on Muslims themselves to challenge the black-white paintings and to be able to lead a discourse beyond the pressure of justification”.

Dr Mustafawi said: “The conference aims at defeating the stereotypes surrounding relations between Islam and the West that focus on conflicts and also on clarifying the integration and equality between Islam and Western culture.” She added that through events such as the symposium, CAS strives to collaborate with all institutions -- local, regional and international -- in line with its vision to be a regional leader in interdisciplinary education and research and to advance societal progress”.

Dr Baabood said that the event was an excellent opportunity for exchange and dialogue regarding pressing issues and regional events as it provides students and faculty with a unique opportunity to exchange ideas with our European counterparts. QU research assistant Farah Al Qawasmi and teaching assistant Alreem Alnaimi joined Esra Kücük and Mersiha Hadžiabdić on the panel “What does it mean to be a young European Muslim?” in sharing their personal experiences as well as the challenges they encountered as young Muslims.

Farah said: “I believe that young Muslims today are more vulnerable to joining extremist parties that claim to go by Islamic morals and principles. There is a greater misconception of Islamic principles today than there was in the past as many people who are not qualified to interpret Islamic principles are leading so-called ‘Islamic’ parties that have no Muslim principles as a basis. Today, we are witnessing a common confusion between Islamic principles and culture and traditions. Unfortunately, just like I do not trust all the news I hear, I don’t trust all the Islamic interpretations, or ‘fatawi’ justifications. We witnessed many Islamic parties rising after the Arab Spring as part of the Islamic phenomena this region is undergoing today, parties that hide behind the veil of Islam to justify their extremist approach”.

Mersiha said “As a young German and Bosnian Muslim, I know how difficult it can be to try to live your hybrid identity in a society that is just realizing the need to create space and see value of this part of its population. Nevertheless, I am very optimistic because the vibrant, self- confident voices of Muslim poetry slammers, Muslim comic artists, social entrepreneurs, and activists in the JUMA project or even teachers and dentists are increasingly being recognized for their contribution to our German society”.