Islam & the West: The Roots of the Conflict — and What Next?”
This page contains an abbreviated outline of the material I generally cover and the variety of ways it can be approached, from a single presentation (the most common) to a multi-session seminar.
My goal is to present solid historical and contemporary information, but in as informal a style as possible: I invite questions/comments and encourage discussion. The more time available, the more I am able to illustrate the points below with helpful or humorous anecdotes from my personal experience living in Muslim societies.
I. “Generalist presentation:” content overview
II. Different presentation topics and handouts
III. Technical requirements
V. “Humanities Montana” Speakers Bureau grants
I. “Generalist presentation:” content overview
– Introduction: Definitions; difficulty of generalizing about “all Muslims;” American political and media simplification of historical factors and sensationalizing; why should we be interested?
– Overview of the life and times of Islam’s founder, Mohammed The Prophet and the religion he founded. I summarize general Muslim beliefs and practices and –after his death — the new Muslim community’s division over who should succeed Mohammed (the different groups gradually becoming Sunnis and Shias). I explain the “scriptural” bases of Islam: the Qur’an,(record of Mohammed’s visions), the sunnah and the hadith which became the basis of Islamic belief, tradition and law (sharia). All continue to be interpreted and applied differently by the various groups of scholars and political rulers in the centuries since Mohammed’s death.
– “What went wrong?” from the Muslim point of view: The legacies of the medieval Crusades, the Mongol invasions and the slow retreat of Islamic political dominance as the West expanded from the late 15th century onward; the more recent (and usually negative) Muslim memories of late 19th, 20th, and 21st century Western colonialism; Zionism, creation of the state of Israel and subsequent western support of Israel; the perceived gap between American/European rhetorical commitment to democracy; perceptions in traditional Muslim societies of the West as decadent/degenerate and its corrosive effects on traditional cultures; and modern “jihadists” are motivated less by poverty or ignorance, but by a lethal mix of nationalism, zealotry and sense of humiliation.
II. Different ways of presenting the above material — and handouts:
Topic 1. I can do a single 75-90 minute talk covering most of the material above, with additional time for questions/discussions. This would cover – in very broad brush strokes — the material described in a minimal four-five-page handout given to the audience, which includes a map and a timeline
(The handout documents may be downloaded from this site (go to the “Handouts” link), and I ask the sponsor to do the photocopying for however many guests are expected. Even for the single “generalist” presentation, I encourage sponsors to reproduce the entire booklet, including the Sunni-Shi’ia material, the jihadist notes, the “what can we do?” suggestions and the “further reading list,” as a continuing resource.
(Note: My experience is that often this single generalist presentation and follow-on discussion can go on for up to three hours — not because I talk that long, but because the continuing questions and concerns from audiences take engage participants. People are free to leave as they need to.
Topic 1 in two sessions: If I have more time with the same audience, I can more thoroughly cover the same material in two sessions: for example, a morning or afternoon session followed by a meal break and continued by an afternoon or evening session. I cover more the historical detail in more depth, as well as illustrate the history with more anecdotes from my foreign service experience.
(Note: The #1 option above (whether in one session or two sessions) is a useful “first step” with generalist audiences, but the Shia/Sunni talk and the Jihadist talk are often also appreciated by generalists as “stand-alone” presentations, since those issues get so much attention in the American media.)
I avoid an overly scholarly approach, since my own background and training have been experiential. My intention is to engage audiences in understands the issues without having had a recent university course in comparative religion — or, for those who are more backgrounded — to offer a first-hand, informed view that can add depth and dimension to formal study.
(Sometimes sponsors encourage local high school or university students to attend, either as a course requirement or by offering the incentive of extra credit in the school’s history classes. I also enjoy speaking directly to youth audiences, and have had excellent response.)
Topic 2. After the basic material above has been given in either one or two presentations, I can present an additional session soley on “Islam: Monotheistic But Not Monolithic.”
Considered a separate topic under Humanities Montana guidelines, we discuss how “Islam” is as varied as any other world religion. The most obvious is the Sunni-Shi’ia split — so apparent in the current situation in Iraq. There is a two-page handout that accompanies this presentation.
However, among Sunnis, there are at least four different schools of interpretaion varying along the conservative to liberal scale — and in the Shiite tradition, there are significant differences between sects in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey.
I also touch on the wide variety of Sufi traditions — Sufis being the “mystics” of Islam, with an underlying belief that humanity can experience the Divine directly, and in a variety of ways.
Topic 3. A fourth separate “stand-alone” topic is entitled “Jihadists: Crazy or Committed?” This presentation examines the motivations of Islamic extremists and how better to counter them. It is one of the thornier issues in our present dilemma, but needs discussion and understanding. Again, there is an additional single page (double-sided) handout with this presentation.
A subject that often comes up in discussion is what we in America can do (as individuals and institutions) to improve the situation, to help address the problem of American relations with Moslems, both here and abroad. I have a single double-sided page set of handout notes for subject, but it is usually not a separate presentation.
Note regarding handouts: For sponsors choosing a multi-presentation program of several talks, I request that sponsoring organizations reproduce all the handouts (downloaded from the “handouts” link on this site) into a single booklet of 10-12 doubled-sided pages, which includes (in addition to those mentioned above, a “further reading” list. This booklet has proven very popular, since it gives in shortened or graphic form the major points of all the material, plus suggestions for further individual or group reading.
III. The basic technical needs for my presentations/discussions are simple: