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Social Science Is Focus of Cairo Conference: Surveying Worldviews of Islamic Publics

by Joane Nagel & Patricia White,
National Science Foundation

For some time now social scientists have pondered the problem of deciphering the contents of the black boxes known as Orientalism and Occidentalism. How do we understand, for example, views held by individuals and communities in the East and the West as we gaze at one another through politically, culturally, and economically mediated lenses? Questions about beliefs and assumptions embraced by intellectuals and laypeople alike on both sides of this historical divide now have attained special importance and pertinence to world affairs. The events of September 11, 2001, the escalating Palestinian and Israeli discord, and the war in Iraq all amplify the urgency of engaging these fundamentally sociological issues.

In February, more than 30 social scientists from eight Islamic countries (Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan, and Turkey), the United States, and three European states (France, Sweden, and Spain) spent three days in Cairo, Egypt, reporting and reflecting on what we know and what we need to know about the worldviews of members of Islamic societies and how those compare to Western worldviews. The purpose of the conference, titled Explaining the Worldviews of the Islamic Publics: Methodological and Theoretical Issues, not only was designed to promote understanding of the most important organizing principles of Islamic societies but also to provide an opportunity for collaboration across East-West borders and to support social science activities and infrastructures of participating countries.

The conference was organized by American Sociological Association member Mansoor Moaddel, Eastern Michigan University, and his Egyptian colleague, Abdel-Hamid Abdel-Latif, Ain Shams University, and was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Ford Foundation, and the World Value Survey Association. Representatives from NSF, the White House science advisor’s office (Office of Science and Technology Policy), and other government agencies attended the meeting.

Increasing Sophistication, Data

Fortunately, for social science and social understanding, this was not the first time these researchers, individually or as teams, had met. This was the third meeting of researchers interested in the study of values and value change in the Islamic world. The first such meeting, funded by NSF, was a pilot project organized at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan in Amman, in 1999. In that workshop, participants designed a questionnaire to explore the similarities and differences in value orientations of the publics in Egypt, Iran, and Jordan. (See January 2003 Footnotes, pg. 1.) In addition to items specifically designed for Islamic countries, the questionnaire replicated key items from the World Values Survey (WVS) in order to permit comparisons with WVS data collected from dozens of countries around the world. A grant from the Rockefeller Foundation made a second meeting possible (at the University of Tehran, Iran, in 2000) to revise the sampling frame and the questionnaire in light of the pilot survey data.

Another impetus for the 2003 Cairo conference was to take stock of the accumulating and significant social science data and analyses following the completion of comprehensive comparative national values surveys in more than ten Islamic countries in the past two years. This data set allowed comparison among Islamic countries on issues specific to those countries and between Islamic countries and representative national surveys of the publics of 80 societies—comprising more than 85 percent of the world’s population—covered by the WVS. The February conference in Cairo featured presentations on varied topics such as Islam in a global context; modernization of Islamic countries; Islam and liberal democracy; the relationship among religion, class, and party politics; ideology, text, and power within the Islamic context; family; self-rated health; migration; and culture and identity, as well as methodological issues related to the study of values in Islamic countries. A recurring finding reported at the conference was that most Islamic publics combine a deep religiosity with favorable attitudes toward democracy.

“We expect to continue with further conferences,” said Moaddel in an interview following the conference, “as the importance of the issues raised is only increasing. Social science has an awesome obligation to further understanding to help bridge the differences, real and not-so-real, among cultures.”