Center for Emerging Worlds launches with a year-long focus on global Islam

emerging worlds poster

The Center for Emerging Worlds at UC Santa Cruz, which launched in September, has formed to address the many conflicts, environmental challenges, resource competitions, and ethnic nationalist and religious tensions in the world.

“I like to think of it as a scholarly think tank,” said center director Lisa Rofel, a UCSC professor of anthropology. “We are bringing together different kinds of expertise to get us behind the headlines of the major issues we see today.”

Getting behind the headlines to explore the nuances and complexities of world events drives the center’s scholarship and its programs, which are planned as public conversations.

“It is a way to talk about emergent world issues that our lives are pretty closely connected with,” Rofel said. “Even where we are in Santa Cruz it affects our lives.”

The center has selected global Islam as its first theme and has planned a series of events, open to the public. The first, on conceptions of "jihad" and radicalism, took place November 17 and 18 on the UC Santa Cruz campus.

Next year, the center will focus on global China, and on Comparative Empires and global Africa the year after that. Rofel’s research specialty is China.

The center grows out of the Emerging Worlds theme the UC Santa Cruz anthropology department has selected as its intellectual road map. It’s a desire to looking ahead rather than behind.

“Instead of restricting anthropology to the study of supposedly vanishing cultures, we set out a vision of a discipline concerned with social worlds in the process of becoming,” Rofel said.

And though its director is an anthropologist and an anthropologist is one of its first guest speakers, the Center for Emerging Worlds draws UCSC academics from across the humanities and social sciences. The executive committee, which develops the programming to explore the themes, is made up of professors in history, politics, film and digital media, in addition to anthropology.

“This is exciting in a few ways,” said assistant professor Jennifer Derr, a historian of the Middle East and a member of the executive committee. “First, having an entire year devoted to the study of Islam. UCSC doesn’t have a Middle Eastern studies program or an Islamic studies program. And it’s a way to think about how to study the Islamic world and engage the public.”

The first program, “Taking Radicalism Seriously; or How to Think (and Not Think) About Jihad,” was planned as a public community discussion. 

Visiting UC Santa Cruz to take part was Darryl Li, associate research scholar in law and Robina Visiting Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School. Li, who earned a Ph.D. in anthropology at Harvard while also completing a law degree at Yale, studies pan Islam and humanitarian law.

He was joined by Henri Lauzière, an expert in in the modern Middle East and North Africa, Islamic intellectual history, and Salafism, a traditionalist movement within Islam, which surfaced in the second half of the 19th century in reaction to the spread of European ideas. Lauzière is an assistant professor of history at Northwestern University.

The future programs are designed to be community discussions as well. “We will start with opening comments and then let the people who come ask questions,” Rofel said.

More programs within the Global Islam theme are planned for 2015 with visiting scholars from Johns Hopkins University and Carlton College. A film festival featuring films from the Arab and Muslim world is planned for the spring.

Initial first-year seed funding for the center came from UC Santa Cruz Social Sciences Dean Sheldon Kamieniecki. Rofel said she expects to fundraise for the center’s subsequent years.