Brooklyn, New York, June 6–7, 2009
Funded by Funded by The Andrew M. Mellon Foundation, The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, The Ford Foundation, The Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and The Rockefeller Foundation’s New York City Cultural Innovation Fund
Founded in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the NYU Center for Dialogues soon emerged as a forum for important academic and policy discussions aimed at narrowing the divide between the Muslim world and the West. Like many of its sister institutions, and reflecting the dominant paradigm of the times, the Center’s work mainly addressed political issues and their intellectual underpinnings. Those years, under the Bush administration, saw a dangerous polarization of the United States’s relationship with the Muslim world. The Center, however, advocated for a relationship based on mutual respect and understanding, even as expressions like “the global war on terror” and “Islamofascism” held sway in public discourse. We hoped for better days ahead.
Better days finally arrived with the election of President Barack Obama, who has made it a goal of his administration to bridge the gap between the U.S. and the Muslim world. In this new climate of understanding, it was finally possible to seriously consider cultural exchange as a positive means of changing perceptions and bringing people together. Nevertheless, the Center never ceased to recognize that — despite the real power of culture — it is only one of many necessary steps towards overcoming tensions rooted in hard political grievances.
Circumstances often determine meaning, and the conference chronicled in this report is a case in point. Under different circumstances — despite the participation of eminent figures from academia, public policy, and the arts — it could have been an exercise in wishful thinking. Fortunately, circumstances were incredibly favorable; on the eve of the conference, President Obama delivered a speech in Cairo, Egypt, calling for a “new beginning” in the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world.
For the next two days, scholars, artists, writers, cultural practitioners, entrepreneurs, and policy makers from Egypt, India, Iran, Kuwait, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Tunisia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan met with their counterparts from the United States and Europe. With newfound passion borne out of the circumstances, but with no less clarity and brilliance, they debated what to do in the field of culture to bridge the gap between the two sides.
This report reflects their discussions and delivers their findings. I urge those in the new administration, but also in Congress, the academic community, philanthropic foundations, and the corporate sector — indeed, anyone who is serious about making Obama’s “new beginning” a reality — to take to heart the ideas articulated in this report, and particularly its conclusions and recommendations.
I have many people to thank, starting with Karen Hopkins, President of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Vishakha Desai, President of The Asia Society, my partners in the Muslim Voices festival of which this conference was a part. The conference would not have been possible without the financial support of the philanthropic community. My sincere thanks to The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, The Rockefeller Foundation’s New York City Cultural Innovation Fund, The Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, The Ford Foundation, and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for their support.
I would like to extend my deepest personal thanks to two foundation presidents in particular — Stephen Heintz of The Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Margaret Ayers of The Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. Stephen and Margaret stood by the Center with unfailing dedication for two years as we worked to make this conference happen and they recognized Obama’s election as a critical window of opportunity for a new cultural diplomacy towards the Muslim world.
Thank you, as well, to my colleagues on the Academic Advisory Committee: Jon W. Anderson, Chair, Anthropology Department, Catholic University; Margaret Ayers, President, The Robert Sterling Clark Foundation; Richard Bulliet, Professor of History, Columbia University; Rachel Cooper, Director for Cultural Programs and Performing Arts, The Asia Society; Dale Eickelman, Professor of Anthropology and Human Relations, Dartmouth College; Bruce Lawrence, Professor of Islamic Studies, Duke University; Samina Quraeshi, Harvard University Fellow; Philip Schuyler, Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology, University of Washington; Anthony Shay, Assistant Professor of Dance and Culture, Pomona College; and Eleanor Skimin, Humanities Manager, Brooklyn Academy of Music. The committee tirelessly explored the complexities of “Islamic Art” and “cultural exchanges/cultural diplomacy.” I hope that they, and indeed all of the conference participants,* will take pride in this report and their contribution to realizing Obama’s vision.
Last but not least, my thanks go to my Center colleagues — Andrea L. Stanton, Helena Zeweri, Sara Courtney Brown, and Evian Patterson — for their hard work and exemplary commitment to the task, as well to Shara Kay, our brilliant editor since the Center’s creation, and Reema Hijazi, who joined our team for a few weeks to work on the report.
Once again, it is our hope that the conference and its findings, described in this report, will help provide the road map for a new cultural engagement with the Muslim world. We look to you, the reader, to help make this a reality.
Founder and Director
Center for Dialogues: Islamic World–U.S.–The West
New York University