What has been done, and what can be done, with Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies

Majlis Discussion Group

For our first Majlis of 2017 we assess the state of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. What qualifies someone to be an “expert” commentator, to be called a Doctor of Philosophy, or to teach about the politics, religion, society and cultures of the Middle East? What do definitions of competence tell us about the academy itself? This topic is essential for those undertaking or thinking of graduate study, and for undergraduates seeking to understand the ethical and professional contexts of their studies.

Several factors make any idea of competence highly fraught. For some in the academy, Edward Said’s Orientalism would invalidate any discussion about the Muslim Other that originates in the halls of the Western academy. Scholarly involvement in recent military adventures might confirm this politicisation while simultaneously hinting at the postmodern academy’s inability to speak to the policy agenda. Yet is not Western engagement with the region marked by a profound ignorance desperately in need of cultural literacy? The academy itself seems to be splitting apart, torn between seemingly incommensurable academic disciplines and political agendas.

In this context, we are joined by Professor Dale Eickelman, who will lead our discussion around two themes. Firstly, he will ask about the changing understandings of scholarly competence. Australia, for example, does not seem to value Arabists or Persianists (“With Google translate, who needs language skills?”). Does a graduate obtain higher value for academic credentials for speaking and reading Arabic and Persian? What are the implications of language proficiency for scholarly rigor? Secondly, we will consider the political economy of the academy. As funding sources, incentives, and metrics of success are increasingly bound to state and market priorities, where does this leave the rigorous and analytical study of Islam? The dynamics of Sufi Brotherhoods may be interesting, do these dynamics have relevance for the modern ‘innovative’ economy?

Professor Dale F. Eickelman is a prominent anthropologist and the author of seminal works on the region, many of which are translated into Arabic. These include Knowledge and Power in Morocco (1985), Muslim Politics (1996, revised ed. 2003, co-authored with James Piscatori), The Middle East and Central Asia: An Anthropological Approach (first edition 1981, 4th edition 2002), Public Islam and the Common Good (2004, co-edited with Armando Salvatore) and, classically, ‘The Art of Memory: Islamic Education and its Social Reproduction’ (1978, Comparative Studies of History and Society). He is Ralph and Richard Lazarus Professor of Anthropology and Human Relations Emeritus at Dartmouth College.

Some suggested readings…
On the controversial Human Terrain System, which embedded anthropologists in the United States Army

A reflection on Allan Bloom’s 1987 critique of the American academy

To register for this event or join the web site:

The Majlis in 2017 will be held on the first Friday of each month.

The Majlis is free and open to the public, but we prefer that you RSVP for catering purposes.

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Date & time

Fri 03 Mar 2017, 11am–12.30pm


Al-Falasi Lecture Theatre, CAIS Building, Ellery Cres, ANU


Updated:  5 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  College Dean/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications