Keynote address at conference on Islam describes diversity of views

Sept. 27, 2002, 2:58 p.m.

Iranian scholar and teacher Abdolkarim Soroush emphasized the distinction between an "Islam of ideas" and an "Islam of identity" and the ongoing struggle to find a balance between the two during the keynote address this morning at a conference on campus.

"Ideas do not clash in that they don't fight each other," he said. "But religion is prone to provide an identity for people. Therefore if someone attacks your religion, they attack your identity, and that leads to intolerance."

Soroush's address kicked off the two-day conference, "Understanding and Responding to the Islamic World After Sept. 11," which brings together an international gathering of scholars and journalists -- many from the Islamic world -- and the Princeton community.

The author of 30 books, most in Persian, Soroush is the director of the Institute for Epistemological Research in Tehran. He is currently on leave to teach in the United States; this spring he was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and a scholar in residence at Yale Law School. Soroush received both a traditional Islamic education in Iran and a secular education, culminating in a doctoral degree from Tehran University and a master's degree from Chelsea College, London.

In his address, Soroush categorized two types of Islam found in the world today: nonpolitical and political. According to Soroush, the nonpolitical describes traditionalist Islam, while the political refers to modernist (or liberal) Islam as well as fundamentalist Islam. He argued that the differences in the self-perception and world view of each of these groups must be understood by the West in order to pursue dialogue instead of conflict.

According to Soroush, traditionalist Muslims are "otherworldly," focusing on the next life and salvation. "They only think of the independence of Islamic culture and protect themselves from other cultures," he said. "To them, the West is corrupt and has nothing to offer."

Soroush explained that the modernist Islamic outlook is to respond to and engage with Western ideas in areas such as ethics, philosophy and science. The impetus is to "look to the West as a place from which to borrow ideas and then to refine them, but not to confront with the identity of the West."

Like traditionalist Islam, Soroush explained that fundamentalist Islam also focuses on the next life. But fundamentalists perceive the West as "confronting them not as a body of ideas but as an identity that is claiming hegemony."

Soroush argued that over the centuries, the "face of the West" began to look increasingly "militant" to the Islamic world. He cited the fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire, the two world wars, the creation of Israel, the West's self-interested pursuit of oil and involvement in various political events as reasons for making Muslims "more sensitive and assertive about their identity." Soroush said that it is this need to assert identity that leads to fundamentalism in the Islamic world and in the West.

"It is the responsibility of the West to emphasize the idea of dialogue, to come to terms with and understand Muslim thinkers who are looking for the balance between identity and truth," said Soroush. "Western governments need to be more ethical and not put national interests at the top of the agenda. They need to respect the dignity of others."

The conference runs until 6 p.m. today and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday in 50 McCosh Hall. A complete agenda is available online. The conference also is being Webcast .

It is sponsored by the Council on Regional Studies, Center of International Studies and Bobst Center for Peace and Justice.

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601