What’s missing here? Israel

John Elizandro

From April 1st through 4th, Villanova’s Center for Arab and Islamic studies is hosting a major academic conference celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Center’s founding. The lineup of visiting guests and scholars is impressive. Academic heavyweights from a dozen countries and over 150 Arab and Islamic scholars, authors, and professors from across the field will speak and present their work. However, if the geographic diversity of the guests is impressive, their ideological diversity is not.

With America’s war in Iraq and Israel’s war in Gaza, there is no shortage of controversy to be debated at a conference addressing Arab and Islamic issues. Such debates are not likely to be found at Villanova’s conference. The current list of guest lecturers and academics has in common a nearly uniform hostility to America and its Jewish allies.

The keynote speaker, University of Michigan academic Juan Cole, has a well-earned reputation as a staunch critic of Israel. He has even gone so far as to suggest that pro-Israeli American officials might hold questionable loyalties to America and blame Israel for inspiring the 9/11 attacks.

Another feature of the conference is a performance of “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” a play depicting the journals and writings of a radical American activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer. Described in one review as “unabashedly one-sided”, the play makes no effort to place the Israeli military operation in which the main character is killed within any kind of context.

This kind of academic conference should promote a balanced and even handed debate of such contentious issues. The lack of impartiality at Villanova’s upcoming conference is in part a reflection of a larger problem within Islamic Studies departments across the country. Though most universities have an understandably liberal tilt, Islamic and Arab studies departments in particular occupy the far left wing of academic discourse. Villanova’s conference, subtitled “Challenges in Arab and Islamic Studies,” fails to tackle the largest challenge facing the field: the overwhelming ideological slant of its scholars.

Center for Arab and Islamic Studies director Dr. Silvia Nagy-Zekmi maintains that all participants were selected “solely on their academic merits” and independent of political viewpoints. She believes that since it is indeed an Arab and Islamic Studies conference and not a Middle Eastern Studies event, it is entirely appropriate to expect the participants to emphasize the Arab perspective.

While technically true, such a distinction will be lost to the non-academic audience of the conference. Undergraduate students, professors from other fields, and other members of the Villanova community hoping to hear a balanced academic discussion of Middle Eastern and Islamic issues will be disappointed.

Dr. Nagy-Zekmi is justifiably proud of the array of scholars scheduled to attend the conference. Despite their ideological conformity, it is indeed an impressive group of distinguished academics. After 25 years, as she put it, it was time for Villanova to host a major international Arab and Islamic Studies conference. Holding this conference will greatly enhance the Center’s academic standing and provide invaluable networking opportunities to faculty.

But, ultimately, the purpose of such a conference is to provide a forum for discussion, debate and discourse about these contentious issues. Although the views that will be presented are valid, an effort should be made to ensure all viewpoints are fairly and accurately represented.

Though its high-caliber academic talent is noteworthy, Villanova should make a more concerted effort to attract political and ideological diversity to its upcoming conference.


John Elizandro is a freshman from Radnor, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].