The Faculty Fellows seminar for December 5th was led by Dr. Madeline Maxwell, Professor in the Department of Communication Studies in the Moody College of Communication. In addition to discussing her research on conflict resolution, Dr. Maxwell discussed her work as founder and organizer of the UT Project on Conflict Resolution and the graduate portfolio program in Dispute and Conflict Resolution. Maxwell’s seminar took an unusual turn into introducing her topic, adding a note of intrigue in the form of a game.
Maxwell began by describing the disputes she mediates as ones that can threaten clients’ well-being fundamentally because of the risk they pose to clients’ personal narrative. Solutions, she noted, are often secondary to the issue of having a story that clients can tell themselves about the dispute and its resolution. She also discussed her plans to eventually write about storytelling in mediation, as well as mediation and conflict resolution as educational modalities. Teaching negotiation tactics can often be effective ways of teaching people how to work together and how to compromise, pedagogy that she has into practice with the Global Ethics and Conflict Resolution Summer Symposium. The Symposium provides high school students the opportunity to learn conflict resolution skills that apply to everything from personal disputes to global issues. Maxwell stated she would like to further explore the benefits of communication and conflict resolution skills training in education alongside her current work.
Maxwell then informed the group that they would be doing a short exercise to demonstrate the ways in which storytelling often coincides with conflict resolution. Two Fellows selected by Maxwell read from a prepared script, telling a fragmented story of two seemingly separate, unconnected events. The rest of the group was permitted to ask the two readers any question they liked about the stories, with the caveat that the readers could only answer “yes” or “no.” The goal, Maxwell explained, was to uncover the full story connecting the two incidents. The Fellows had a lively Q&A, though several details still seemed unclear. Finally, Maxwell and the volunteered Fellows told the entire story.
Through this exercise, Maxwell provided further context for her work, noting the fungibility of words and the inexact science of interpreting disputants’ meanings. Maxwell explained that disputants in mediation will often have spoken or unspoken agreements about what is to be disclosed in the session, which further complicate the role of the mediator. The seminar closed with a discussion of Maxwell’s future projects and goals, as well as a discussion of mediating as a profession and the relationship between leadership and mediation. Maxwell explained that teaching leadership skills isn’t a matter of teaching people to be assertive, or forcing people into a perceived best outcome. Rather, it’s a process of listening, compromising, and actively finding an agreeable outcome for everyone in a group–what might be called a common story.
A. Azfar Moin, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, began his Faculty Fellows seminar by drawing attention to a map of the dissemination of Islam. The geographic representation painted a surprising picture: the Indian subcontinent (specifically Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan) is and has been home to the largest population of Muslims in the world. Moin noted that many may find this fact unexpected because, for the most part, the history of Islam has melded into the history of the Middle East (thanks to the legacies of 19th century Euro-centric historical representations). For this reason, Moin sees one of the primary goals of his new book project, Oaths of Peace: Sovereignty and Political Theology in Islam, as correcting this asymmetrical teleology – that is, he aims to “recast Islam in a new narrative frame – a deep history of biblical monotheism that moves through ‘Asia’ rather than the ‘Middle East’.” Each chapter of the proposed book will focus on an illustrative historical context through which Moin will trace back the long and complex chronicle of events bound by a common thread. In other words, the primary questions at stake for the Fellows and future readers of this work are: what assumptions about Islam can be reconsidered by decentering its focal point and what stories can we uncover by changing the dominant teleological narrative?
For the December 19th seminar, the Faculty Fellows read a draft of Moin’s opening chapter on “oath-taking” and “peace-making,” “Oaths of Peace.” In his manuscript, Moin explains that before Islam expanded into the “polytheistic” Asian context, there was no provision for a peace (sulh) oath to be solemnized. Generally, in the premodern world, for an oath (or, a “curse-in-waiting”) to have validity it had to be sworn on something both parties deemed significantly solemn. Since the time of early Islam, “people of the book” (i.e. Abrahamic “monotheists”) could legitimately swear on the God of Abraham to seal an oath. However, as Islam expanded, Islamic sovereigns faced a critical dilemma: clearly, oaths had to be taken to maintain order, but if a king were to accept an oath by a non-monotheist, he would be open to accusations of subverting the law of the Qur’an. To better understand the severity of this transgression, the Fellows read selections from Jan Assmann’s The Price of Monotheism (2009), wherein Assmann argues that the shift from the dominance of “polytheistic” to “monotheistic” religions were marked by moments that define the “Mosaic distinction” (2009). Assmann claims that, “what seems critical…is not the distinction between the One God and many gods but the distinction between truth and falsehood in religion, between the true god and false gods, true doctrine and false doctrine, knowledge and ignorance, belief and unbelief” (2009, p.2). In other words, accepting the oath of an “unbeliever” on a “false god” was tantamount to apostasy. Therefore, how was a king to govern a “pagan” people?
The hegemonic narrative used to answer this question is that conversion was, for all intents and purposes, the predominant method implemented by the premodern Islamic empire. Conversion, so the story goes, offered a silver-bullet solution to all problems of governance and control (not to mention ethics and religion). However, Moin notes that historians do point to an exception: the policy of religious “tolerance” practiced during the reign of the Mughal empire in India. According to the established narrative, the Mughals were eccentrics but pragmatic; to be able to rule with any sort of expediency in this polytheistic outpost of Islam, Akbar (16th century) took a hard turn away from the monotheistic practice of the day and implemented the policy of sulh-i kull, translated as “universal peace” (or “peace with all”).
Moin agrees that Akbar’s language of accommodation (i.e. viewing…“all sects of religion with the single eye of favor”) was bold and unorthodox in that it essentially claimed authority above God. In fact, ultimately the Mughal’s sulh-i kull allowed the king to accept oaths from members of other religions as they could swear on the king himself as a divine being. However, Moin argues that much groundwork had already been laid by Islamic sovereigns prior to Akbar’s reign and that such claims had to be derived from some existing authority – however, the techniques used by previous Muslim kings had also gone awry of established monotheistic doctrine.
By the 16th century, Akbar (and the Mughals who followed) had inherited both the problem of accepting oaths from non-monotheists as well as the precedents to be able to claim ultimate authority. For instance, Chinggis Khan, one of Mughal dynasty’s most important forefathers, and a “pagan”, brought a return to pre-monotheistic “sacred kingship” during his reign. After defeating the caliphate in 1258, the Mongols declared Chinggis Khan to be “the living god” or god on earth – establishing a narrative of the king as divine. If we look further back, prior to the Mongols, Mahmud, a Ghaznavid mamluk (“slave”) who came to rule Ghazna in the 11th century, provides us with an example of “peace-making” in the non-monotheistic context. After besieging Kalinjar, Mahmud, in addition to spoils, accepted a finger from the Hindu ruler in exchange for peace. However, the symbol of amputation being a Hindu one, the conquered ruler also had to wear a robe of investiture that carried the sacred authority of the Caliphal, the Islam authority. While Islamic sovereignty in this era was manifested in a concrete form, this sovereignty, nonetheless, made it possible to accept oaths from those who were not “people of the book” – an important precedent, as Moin shows.
The Fellows posed a number of historical questions on early Islam, specifically, and premodern oath-taking and religions, in general. Additionally, the group asked Moin to expound on his view of “sovereignty” and “sacred kingship.” To this, Moin responded that, while most scholars would claim that “sovereignty” is a post-nation-state notion that has no place in the premodern context, in reality, issues of governance and territoriality have always been with us. For this reason, early-modern notions of sovereignty can and should be equated with kingship. Similarly, Schmitt’s “political theology” is illustrative for showing that “sacred kingship” was common prior to the expansion of monotheism. Moin explained that Mughal-era sacred kingship was the subject of his first book, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam (2014, Columbia University Press), and he aims to move beyond South Asia and the Mughals in his forthcoming work.
Many of the Fellows were aware of the recent Indian legislation (and subsequent rioting) that denies refugee status to Muslims through the Citizenship Amendment Bill – making Moin’s and the work of his colleagues in this field all the more timely and critical. Moin recently organized a workshop titled “Peace with All Religions (Sulh-i Kull): Indo Persian Political Theology and Cosmopolitanism”, which followed a semester-long seminar series sponsored by UT’s South Asia Institute, bringing this conversation to the wider academic community. If the interest and enthusiasm shown by the Fall 2019 Faculty Fellows is representative, Oaths of Peace: Sovereignty and Political Theology in Islam is sure to be an influential work in shaping the teleological narrative of Islam’s past, and hopefully, this more nuanced history can be used to better guide the current narrative.
Young Israeli and Palestinian Leaders on Modeling Difficult Dialogues
By Wendy Fernandez
Each semester, the Humanities Institute hosts a Public Forum as part of our Difficult Dialogues program, designed to foster dialogue-based learning on campus. On February 13th in the Texas Union, the HI hosted a panel discussion with Creativity for Peace, a non-profit organization that trains young Palestinian and Israeli women to be peacemakers in their communities. The organization hosts a three-week summer camp in Santa Fe, NM that teaches these young women how to dialogue across cultural and sociopolitical lines for the purpose of fostering peace.
The panel included Dottie Indyke, Director of Creativity for Peace, and four Young Leaders with the organization ready to share their stories. Indyke opened the panel discussion, clarifying that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is not primarily a religious war between Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews, but is, rather, primarily a struggle for rights to the land. The Israel-Palestine conflict is most commonly traced back to the end of World War II, when, in response to the immigration crisis in Europe with regard to Holocaust survivors and Jewish refugees, the Jewish People’s Council, in cooperation with the newly formed United Nations, established the Jewish state at the site of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Areas of Palestine were partitioned off for Jewish settlement. The conflict over shifting boundaries can be seen today in the suicide bombings, raids, and demolitions that afflict both Israel and Palestine.
On Training Young Israeli and Palestinian Women to Be Peacemakers in their Communities
By Suzanne Seriff
Sometimes, various aspects of our lives intersect in unexpected and enriching ways. This was the case when I learned that the University of Texas at Austin’s Humanities Institute and Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, along with the Jewish and interfaith communities of Austin were hosting a week-long visit from four young women leaders—Palestinian and Jewish Israeli—who are part of a Santa Fe-based organization called Creativity for Peace. The events take place from Feb 12-16, 2017.
Creativity for Peace (CfP) is in its 18th year and “prepares young Israeli and Palestinian women to be peacemakers in their communities and across borders with compassion, friendship, and courage.” I am an active member of each of the Austin-based host communities, and I also have a collaborative relationship with Creativity for Peace in Santa Fe. Each has unique qualities but all share an openness to new experiences, and a desire for change toward social justice. Some exercise the mind; others the capacity for human connections. Dialogue is the active link that binds me to each of these organizations’ endeavors, and which catalyzes our conversations across borders.
I truly look forward to interacting with all of them on my home turf, a rare opportunity to bring so many resources to the task of promoting peace though dialogue, art, and action.
Established in 2010, the mission of the GoC at the Museum of International Folk Art is to serve as an agent of positive social change by engaging and connecting individuals and communities around social justice and human rights issues, using the power of folk arts to address historical and current events; to catalyze dialogue; and to promote personal reflection, communication, and action. Since 2012 the GoC has operated through a “prototyping” process, in which exhibitions evolve organically over time in response to visitor input and community engagement, ever a work in progress.
Dialogue is at the heart of the GoC’s mission and it was the spark that generated our multi-year collaboration with CfP and two award-winning folk artists. During two successive summer workshops, CfP’s Israeli and Palestinian campers came together with local New Mexican young women at the Gallery to work with master-level folk artists. They explored mutually relevant themes of home, belonging, place and displacement which were mirrored in the GoC exhibition, Between Two Worlds: Folk Artists Reflect on the Immigrant Experience, which was on display at the Museum of International Folk Art between spring of 2014 and spring of 2016. Both workshops were held in conjunction with CfP’s annual three-week summer camp intensive for Palestinian and Jewish Israeli girls, age 15-17.
The issues affecting immigrants, refugees or displaced persons can be difficult to directly confront, either because of stigma, taboo, language barriers, stereotypes, or conflict. The GoC and CfP collaboration gave participants not only the opportunity to engage directly with the words and works of master-level traditional artists who speak out through their arts, but also the chance to share their own stories and personal experiences evoked by the art; to enrich their understanding of different points of view surrounding questions of home and belonging for people who share contested spaces; and to identify how they can respond directly to needs they see in their communities.
By the time the exhibition officially opened in the summer of 2014, the Gallery was perfectly—if inadvertently—positioned to respond to what national headlines—and President Obama—were billing as an “urgent humanitarian situation” in the United States (Washington Post June 2, 2014) involving thousands of unaccompanied children arriving in this country seeking asylum. Several of the artworks uncannily mirrored the reporting on these very current events, even though the artworks had been created years—sometimes decades—before. Two of the most evocative artworks include a painting by Cuban artist Cenia Guttiérez Alfonso, depicting an unaccompanied young girl crossing the Atlantic Ocean on her journey to a new land (Menina con Gallo/ Young Girl with Rooster), and a three-part sculpture by Peruvian-American retablo maker Nicario Jiménez (provocatively titled Immigration: The American Dream) which illustrates the differential receptions of three groups of undocumented Latino families–Cubans, Haitians, and Mexicans–arriving on our nation’s shores and greeted, respectively, either by refugee assistance agencies, detention centers, or border police.
That summer also coincided with the outbreak of renewed conflict between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza, rendering Between Two Worlds themes all the more compelling for CfP workshop participants. The works on display sparked dialogue about some of the exhibit’s core themes which resonated with all of the young women– the struggle to belong in a place where you may or may not feel welcome, and the experience of living between two worlds. These works included textiles, wood carvings, beadwork, paintings and poetry by Cuban, Mozambican, Hmong, Mexican, Hispanic New Mexican, Brazilian, Lakota, Polish, Navajo, Tibetan, Nigerian and Peruvian artists. Following this exercise, the young women were introduced to the exhibit’s featured immigrant artist—Nigerian Yoruba indigo dye artist Gasali Adeyemo; (Year One) and Mexican immigrant papel picado (cut paper) artist, Catalina Delgado Trunk (Year Two). These artists introduced the young women to the cultural background of their art and work.
For the remainder of the workshop, participants were encouraged to reflect on their experiences of home, belonging, and displacement, and to express their ideas through the artists’ medium. In the first year of the collaboration, the young women were encouraged to create a quilt block representing some artistic representation of “home” using the batik dying technique introduced by Gasali. These blocks were later sewn into a quilt for the Gallery, and represented some of the profound sentiments that were sparked by the exhibit’s themes. For example, a young Palestinian woman, far from home for the first time, depicted a house aglow with the lights of a traditional wedding. An Israeli portrayed the Jewish Friday-night Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner, when her family gathers for stories and prayer. In the second year of the collaboration, the participants created symbols of home, peace, or family using the cut paper technique of papel picado represented in Catalina’s award-winning work, which were bound into an illustrated book for the Gallery’s dialogue lounge. Both workshops resulted in original works of art, and stories from the CfP campers, that were subsequently featured in the exhibition itself.
Many of these campers have gone on to become young leaders of the Arab-Israeli peace process. They have undertaken intensive leadership training in their home regions on how to facilitate groups, organize projects, serve as spokeswomen and take other actions to help achieve peace. The result has been a steady stream of speaking engagements at conferences both at home and abroad, attending global summits, meeting with government leaders, and even, in some cases, returning to Santa Fe to serve as junior counselors at the CfP summer camp. Their trip to Austin is part of a national tour in which four of these young leaders, along with CfP executive Director Dottie Indyke, will meet and hold workshops with high school and college students throughout the United States to talk about the process that brought them together and answer questions from the audience.
As I prepare to welcome the young leaders of CfP to Austin next week, I realize that one of them, Deema Yusuf, was a participant in our initial workshop with Gasali Adeyemo when she was a first-time CfP camper during the summer of 2014. Writing about the quilt block she created at the time, Deema reflects on the importance of language as both a tie that binds and a spark for dialoguing across difference:
. . . I wanted to write something. Especially in Arabic because I feel like Arabic writing is like an art. And it’s very beautiful—even for people who don’t know how to read it . . . So I decided to write ‘Palestine’ in Arabic because that’s where I’m from and . . . it’s very important for me.
I look forward to welcoming her—and the other representatives from CfP in Santa Fe, and Israel and Palestine—to my Austin home! We live lives in so many time zones, so many dimensions these days that it is rare for things we love to come together. Their visit is a great opportunity for dialogue, engagement, and action.
The Humanities Institute is hosting its Spring 2017 Difficult Dialogues Public Forum with Creativity for Peace on Monday, February 13 at 7pm at the University of Texas at Austin. To learn more about this event, visit us here.
Dr. Suzanne Seriff is a folklorist and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, where she also received her Ph.D. Her research focuses on Mexican culture, immigrant arts, and public culture. She is Director of the Gallery of Conscience (GoC) at the Museum of International Folk Art in Sante Fe, NM.
Official Blog of the Humanities Institute at the University of Texas at Austin