Conference: The Middle East, the Academy, and the Production of Knowledge

Conference banner

Since Edward Said's seminal study Orientalism almost 40 years ago, scholars have been aware that the Middle East is not just a site for study, but one invested with multiple meanings on the politics and pitfalls of how to study a place, generally. Situated at a crossroads of geographies, religions, and histories, the Middle East is contested terrain in every sense, and on a daily basis.

This conference brought together a group of scholars from within and outside the United States, who look at this trope across a range of disciplines. Through this gathering of expertise and perspectives, participants interrogated some of the ways that knowledge about the Middle East is produced, and shed critical light on that knowledge.

The conference took place on Sunday, November 12, 2017 in G10 Biotechnology Building.


Conference program

9:00 a.m. Breakfast

9:25 a.m. Opening Remarks

Hirokazu Miyazaki, John S. Knight Professor of International Studies, Professor of Anthropology; Director, Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies

9:30 a.m. “The Construction of the Middle East in the American Academy”

Juan Cole, Professor of History, University of Michigan

Chair: Mostafa Minawi, Assistant Professor, Department of History; Director, Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative

Response: Esra Akcan, Associate Professor, Department of Architecture

11:00 a.m. Coffee break

11:15 a.m. “Impostures, Empire, and Orientalism: Fantastic Tales of War across the Globe”

Zvi-Ben-Dor Benite, Professor of History and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, New York University

Chair: Jonathan Boyarin, Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies, Department of Near Eastern Studies; Director, Jewish Studies Program

Response: Ross Brann, Milton R. Konvitz Professor of Judeo-Islamic Studies; Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow; Acting Department Chair, Department of Near Eastern Studies

12:45 p.m. Lunch

1:45 p.m. “The Creation and Transfer of Knowledge: Ottoman Empire to France 1600-1800”

Nelly Hanna, Distinguished University Professor, Deparment of Arab and Islamic Civilizations, American University in Cairo

Chair: Eric Tagliacozzo, Professor, Department of History, Director, Comparative Muslim Societies Program

Response: Aziz Rana, Professor of Law, Cornell Law School

3:15 p.m. Coffee break

3:30 p.m. “Knowledge Production on the Arab Uprisings: New Glasses, Old Lenses”

Bassam Haddad, Associate Professor of Government and Politics; Director, Middle East and Islamic Studies Program, Geogre Mason University

Chair: Chantal Thomas, Professor of Law, Cornell Law School; Director, Clarke Initiative for Law and Development in the Middle East and North Africa

Response: Rebekah Maggor, Assistant Professor, Department of Performing and Media Arts

5:15 p.m. Introduction to Keynote Speaker

Lauren Monroe, Associate Professor, Department of Near Eastern Studies

Michael I. Kotlikoff, Provost and Professor, Department of Biomedical Sciences

5:30 p.m. “To Make A New Thermopylae: Greece, Orientalism, and the Problem of Representation”

Katherine Fleming, Provost and Alexander S. Onassis Professor of Hellenic Culture and Civilization, Department of History, New York University

6:30 p.m. Reception




The Middle East Working Group

The Middle East Working Group (MEWG) seeks to explore avenues of collaboration among the various units across the university that are engaged in programming on, and in, the Middle East. At present, units with representation in MEWG include: The Clarke Initiative for Law and Development in the Middle East and North Africa; the Comparative Muslim Societies Program; the Jewish Studies Program; the Near Eastern Studies Department; and the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative. Goals for the working group include: 1) Increasing the visibility of Middle Eastern Studies at Cornell, raising student awareness of the rich and diverse academic resources available to them, and establishing support for research and teaching in this area as a university-level priority; 2) Working to help ensure that expertise on the Middle East helps to undergird the university’s long-term institutional interests and commitments in the region; and 3) Informing the wider academic and other interested publics about Cornell’s scholarly resources related to the Middle East.

Clarke Initiative for Law and Development in the Middle East and North Africa

The Clarke Initiative for Law and Development in the Middle East and North Africa supports research, scholarship and exchange on the contemporary study of the Middle East and North Africa. The Initiative focuses on legal, political, economic, and social changes in the region, and seeks to contribute to continuing academic and legal development. Programming includes collaborations with specialists in academia, policy, and the legal profession in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Highlights of the Clarke Initiative's activities have included: sponsorship or co-sponsorship of major conferences on a wide range of topics, such as law and development, constitutionalism and reform, water law and policy, and refugee and migrant livelihoods; a colloquium which showcases interdisciplinary research; and faculty and student exchange and visitor programs.

Comparative Muslim Societies Program

The Comparative Muslim Societies Program (CMSP) was formed in the spring of 2001 to promote the comparative study of Muslims and Muslim societies between and across the boundaries of traditional area studies programs. The program serves as a forum for faculty and students on campus who are engaged in the study of various aspects of Muslim culture, society, and history categorized in two ways. One group studied is Muslim-majority communities in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. The other Muslim communities are those found in the United States, Europe, China, and other places where Muslims are a minority. CMSP seeks to encourage comparison within the world of Islam and between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. We have a number of seminars and other events every term, as well as a fellowship competition at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Jewish Studies Program

Cornell Jewish Studies aims to be a model of engaged discussion and scholarship in the humanities. It offers the Cornell community a connecting thread to the lives of ancestors and neighbors, both now and long ago, down the block and far away, recorded in text, practice, art, and material culture. Each year the program presents public programs in Ithaca and New York City, ranging from concerts and film screenings to academic lectures and symposia. Its instructional program draws on faculty in several departments of the College of Arts & Sciences, including Near Eastern Studies, anthropology, history, German Studies, Romance Studies, and English.

Near Eastern Studies Department

The Near Eastern Studies department offers undergraduates and graduate students the opportunity to study the languages, literatures, cultures, religions, and histories of the Near East, from ancient Sumer to the modern Middle East. It also educates students and the wider academic community in cross-cultural, trans-historical, and interreligious understanding. The department enrolls more than 1,000 students each semester, mentors more than 20 majors, and operates a small and dynamic graduate program. Faculty specializing in the region’s early history bring a range of disciplines, methods, and theoretical orientations to bear on the study of what is conventionally called the ancient Near East. Geographically, our vision extends from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the lowlands of Mesopotamia, from the highlands of Anatolia and the Caucasus to the plains of southwestern Iran. Our faculty share an abiding commitment to studying past social worlds, from the lived experience of communities and how they came to cohere to the overarching structures and institutions that ordered societies.

Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative

The Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative (OTSI) was established in 2014 to promote the study of Turkey and the Ottoman world (widely defined) across disciplines and academic units at Cornell. The goal is to establish the university as one of the hubs for intellectual exchange about, and knowledge production on, the history, languages, politics, and art of the Ottoman Empire and its successor nation-states. Through a robust program of speaker series, roundtable discussions on current events, the promotion of the study of modern Turkish on campus, and the offering of small language-study grants for graduate students studying Ottoman-Turkish and Ladino abroad, Cornell is quickly becoming a destination for students and scholars interested in learning about this vibrant part of the world.