Seminar Examines Issue of Tolerance in Persian Gulf, New RAK Campus

Posted: April 26, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Christopher Anzalone

On Monday, as part of the “Going Global: The Ethics and Politics of a George Mason University Campus in the Middle East” seminar series, a panel of experts participated in a discussion about issues surrounding the opening of the new Ras al-Khaimah (RAK) campus in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and made general suggestions on plans of action to follow in the future.

The seminar was moderated by Sana Hilmi, term instructor and coordinator of the university’s Arabic language program.

In his short talk, Paul D’Andrea, Robinson Professor of Theater and English, drew from his extensive experience in the study of world literature and the art of creative expression and suggested that through literature, intercultural understanding is possible.

RAK panel
Monday’s panel included, from left, Mohamed Abdel Kader, assistant director of the George Mason University Development Office; Neojumat Nojumi, senior fellow at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution; Paul D’Andrea, Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Theatre and English; Roderick S. French, director of the American University of Sharjah’s Washington Office and founding chancellor of the American University of Sharjah; and moderator Sana Hilmi, lecturer and coordinator of the Arabic Language Program in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages.
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D’Andrea gave a brief overview of his play “Nathan the Wise,” which was adapted from German author Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 18th century novel of the same title that examines the issue of religious tolerance through the interwoven stories of characters who are seemingly separated by religion.

D’Andrea argued that the success of the play, which opened shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, shows that a level of informed mutual respect can be achieved through the “aesthetic distance” of literature in portraying characters from different cultural and national backgrounds in a manner that can foster increased intercultural understanding. “My thesis is that literature, and particularly drama, provides a source for communication among nations,” he said.

Roderick S. French, the director of the American University of Sharjah’s (AUS) Washington Office, discussed his institution’s experiences in the emirate neighboring Ras al-Khaimah, which is ruled by Sultan ibn Muhammad al-Qassimi, a conservative Sunni Muslim and a product and supporter of higher education.

French pointed out that despite the initial resistance of segments of the local population, which tends to be the most religiously conservative in the UAE, the AUS was able to thrive because of the unwavering support of the ruling elite. The university maintained its academic requirements and has earned a reputation as one of the best universities in the Arab world and the greater Middle East.

French briefly discussed the issue of religion and how non-Muslims are treated in Sharjah. Although churches and other houses of worship are present in the emirate and people of other religions are protected, proselytization is both unacceptable under the law of the UAE and inappropriate on the part of expatriates residing in the country.

Mohamed Abdel Kader, assistant director of George Mason’s Office of University Development, spoke about the importance of dropping cultural baggage and preconceived notions of “the other,” which are often based on inaccurate assumptions and stereotypes in setting up the possibility for intercultural cooperation and understanding.

Closing the seminar meeting, Neojumat Nojumi, a senior fellow at George Mason’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution and an expert in Central Asian studies, pointed out that since upwards of 80 percent of the UAE’s population is made up of guest workers or expatriates, the new RAK campus has the potential to attract many non-Arab students, who may be predominantly from the millions of guest workers from South Asia that currently reside in the emirates. He also warned against the “politicization of higher education” and urged the university to accept students based on academic merit and not geopolitical considerations.

The last seminar in the series, “Challenges of Minority and Inter-religious Relations in Ras Al Khaimah: Implications for Educational Strategies at George Mason University in the Middle East,” will be held today from noon to 1:30 p.m. in Mason Hall, Room D3.

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