Mondher Youssfi University teacher of English at the University of Gabes, Tunisia.
My association with Islam and Liberty network has been a steady, if slow, process culminating in taking part in their 9th International Conference on “The Future of Democracy, Peace, and Economic Progress in Muslim Majority Nations”, held on the 27th and 28th of October, 20222 in Mardin, Turkey. As a long-time friend, and “Big Brother” (in the most Un-Orwellian way possible) figure of the ILN editor-in-chief Tasneem Idriss, I have been tirelessly taunting her work with them, as is the code between all older brothers and younger sisters worldwide. I did so by not-so-seriously channeling my inner Edward Said in calling hers a “cute” endeavour to seek the Western validation of a forcefully modernised Islam. I hereby stand corrected!
After having established the above, here is a brief summary of my character, whose elements are pivotal in the writing of this belated contemplation: yours truly is a newly married, not so young although young-looking, not so humble, teacher of English on crutches. As these words are being typed on a Ramadan day, the Dickensian in me could not think of a better unifying thread for this reflection than food. Both the personal journey and the academic conference have indeed been a splendid physical, intellectual, academic, and professional buffet.
At the personal level, the journey has been a worthwhile adventure, although I was unwilling to go at first, due to it being my first solo journey abroad after marriage.
To begin with, anybody who has crossed paths with me knows that my least flattering trait is my adamantine stubbornness that I am physically able to do everything by myself and my categorical refusal of the tiniest offer of help from whomsoever. Freudian analysis aside, I have been repeatedly warned that this hyper-corrective tendency makes me seem a snobbish and tactless character. To amend myself, I have made a resolution that, I will be more, but not totally, open to receiving assistance from my surroundings. To this effect, I could not even begin to thank the virtuous gestures of Islamic hospitality and support, ranging from stewards, taxi drivers, and hotel receptionists to hosting volunteers (students, teachers, officials, and drivers) in all the venues of the event to the extent that I found myself unable to find the right words of the deserved gratitude. As a treat for my ego for accepting the helping hand, I have embarked in the hardest physical challenge I have faced thus far: climbing down huge and steep rock steps to the furthest core of the about 2000-year old Sun Temple in the suburbs of the city. Never have I felt that unable, but did it I eventually managed to by the grace of Allah. Thank you for this moment Mardin!
Conversely, walking through the city roads and university venues has been a supreme exercise for my limbs and eyes alike. Yet, this could have been slightly harder were it not for the support of one friend in particular, who insisted on carrying my bag for me, and at times against my will: Dr. Md. Nurul Amin, bless you eternally!
Equally thankful for the experience is my history-enthusiast side for being constantly exposed to antic edifices as relics of bygone times that could easily be enlivened.
Similarly, being an avid learner of classical languages, knowing that Syriac, a 2000-year old variation of Aramaic, is spoken in that city. Quite similar to Arabic phonetically and morphologically, hearing this voice of the ancient world was a breath of fresh air to my anachronistic taste. Along with Syriac, the streets boasted a proliferation of other languages such as Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic, and English. Such a wealth of human expressions is nothing short of a treasure for a language specialist.
A bonus benefit was the breathtaking natural sceneries around the city with a marvelous combination of rocky mountains and fertile vegetation akin to a pastoral anime setting. To this background, we relished the local musical productions that had combined elements of all the above-mentioned historical and linguistic traditions.
Last but not least, the hosts had the quintessential courtesy of treating us to various , but equally succulent, traditional dishes whose combination of authentic multiple-course meals and traditional sweets that were so generous in quantity that it was next to impossible to empty all the dishes. With the risk of infuriating my diet,
At the academic level, not only has this been my first ever international conference participation abroad of Tunisia, but I also was the youngest, and only Native Arabic speaker panelist in the event. Indeed, I come for a literature background that is quite an anathema within the overall socioeconomic focus of the organisation, and by extension of this specific conference.
Thus, I had to forsake my “academic comfort-zone” and engage with a field that I have often been interested in as a reader: culture studies. This challenge has proven to be the onset of a delicious quest of meanings within the traditionalist, anti-colonial, anti-libertarian, and anti-materialism paradigms. It has been such an absolute intellectual pleasure to be exposed to the fruits of bright minds from history, economy, and political studies departments around the world that I have been physically able to sense my neurons expanding by the minute while the esteemed colleagues have been presenting their papers on areas I am but remotely informed about. This humbling effect left my mind with a long-lost aftertaste of epistemological curiosity.
Furthermore, the scope of the conference was so wide that I have had the distinct privilege of getting to know bright profiles, literally from all four corners of the planet; hailing from Nigeria and Bosnia to the United States of America and India. This massive network of (not entirely) similar minded individuals has shared an unshakable sense of “Islamic Pride” along with their respective cultural components that were salient in their features, outfits, accents, and stories. Being introduced to this wide range of Muslim narratives, figures, and movements in such otherwise remote locations such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Malaysia, and Bangladesh has considerably broadened my understanding of that part of the world, about which I have always been curious. Moreover, I have been introduced to the various factors underlying the diversified manifestations of Islam in, and on, the lives of these respective peoples within a quest to dissect the possible relationships between the following conceptual trinity: Islam, Freedom, and Modernity.
In terms of methodology, the presented papers have mastered a combination of interrelated disciplines: Economy, Informatics, social sciences, and Culture studies. The presented papers ranged from investigating the potential of using the latest technologies to produce development indicators in studying Muslim-majority societies; to past and present success stories of Islamic figures, movements, and systems of socioeconomic reform in South East Asia; to the manifestations of such social issues as inter-faith relations, extremism, market economy dynamics, refugees and the environment in such communities as Turkiye and the OIC countries in an always lucid, if sometimes provocative, style of presentation.
The following Q&A were a great opportunity to further discuss the key ideas that were also discussed during coffee and meal breaks as well as bus drives in the utmost kindness. Even those with otherwise irreconcilable stances on these problems carried themselves with a laudable intellectual and moral courtesy. Thus was the point of the overall event if we ask its organisers.
By token of conclusion, this conference has been a blessing of an experience at all levels possible. My memory shall cherish moments and pictures of it as a beacon of hope in such conflicting times of ideology. I am, therefore, looking forward to renewing this meeting with such beautiful minds.