Live feed from the conference in Atlanta on “The Arab Cultural Debate and Its Implication for U.S.-Arab Engagement.” The conference is a project of the estimable Institute for American Values, the centrist New York think tank directed by David Blankenhorn.
The Institute is most often in the news for its work promoting marriage and parenthood. (Blankenhorn testified in defense of traditional marriage in the recent court challenge to California’s Proposition 8.) But the Institute’s other interests include finding common ground with intellectual leaders in the Muslim Middle East to advance “human right and human dignity.” In the aftermath of 9/11, Blankenhorn drew up “A Letter from America,” What We’re Fighting For, that was signed by sixty prominent American academics and publicly issued in February 2002. It prompted a response from al-Qa’ida attributed to Osama bin Laden himself, and an ominous letter from a group writing as the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia. But it also called for a courageous letter signed by 153 Saudi intellectuals who welcomed “dialogue and exchange.”
Out of that letter grew a series of meetings, starting with a conference in Malta in May 2004. The meeting in Atlanta right now is the fourth of these cultural forums and the first in the United States.
The conference is also the official launch of a new online journal, IjtihadReason. The word “ijtihad,” which has the same root as the more familiar “jihad,” means something like “trustworthy reason,” but is explained with much more nuance here.
The conference and the journal deserve attention in their own right, but it is also worth noting how much important intellectual and cultural work is now carried forward by institutes and centers outside the university. Blankenhorn draws deeply on the work of scholars in all his projects but often moves much sooner and more adroitly into important matters than his campus-based counterparts. The phenomenon of organizational alacrity isn’t limited to the Institute for American Values. It has rightly become known as characteristic of private think tanks. We at the National Association of Scholars lay some claim to that kind of dexterity too. Why is it that the university has become the brachiosaurus of intellectual creativity in the public arena? Essay question for another time.
At the moment, we celebrate the good work that the Institute for American Values is modeling for us in Atlanta.